Monday, December 15, 2008

Stags hold on to defeat Drexel, win seventh consecutive game

by Tom Cleary

Bridgeport – It was a familiar story for the Stags on Sunday. A game that comes down to the wire. But this time one thing was different. Fairfield made its free throws.

After poor shooting from the free throw line nearly cost the Stags against Fordham on Thursday and Iona last Sunday, they made 7-of-8 shots from the charity stripe down the stretch to wrap up a 66-60 victory over Drexel (2-3, 0-1 Colonial Athletic Association).

With the win the Stags (8-3, 2-0 Metro Atlantic Athletic Association) extended their win streak to seven games, for the third time in head coach Ed Cooley’s three seasons, the first time any coach has accomplished that feat in Fairfield history. Last season Fairfield beat Drexel 60-51 in Philadelphia on Feb. 23 as part of ESPN’s BrackeBuster event. That win also came as part of a seven game win streak for the Stags.

The Stags are now off for finals until their Dec. 26 match up against Connecticut at the XL Center in Hartford. For Cooley and his squad, it is a much-needed break.

"Everybody on the floor looked, not basketball tired, but like 'Coach lets get this game over so we can start studying,' " said Cooley, whose team has played 11 games in a month. "That's what I saw in them, to be honest with you, but it was another good team win."

Junior forward Anthony Johnson led the way for the Stags with a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing career-high 16 rebounds. Senior point guard Jonathan Han chipped in 12 points and seven assists, while junior forward Greg Nero also had a double-double, scoring 11 and securing 11 rebounds.

"We knew we needed this one," Han said. "We knew we had a long break and a lot of practices coming up and we wanted to keep this streak alive. We started a little slow today, but we picked it up and had help from the bench."

The Stags never trailed in the game and were only tied twice, the last time coming at 6-6 with 15:07 remaining in the first half. Fairfield opened up a 10 point lead in the first half when Han knocked down a three-pointer with just over eight minutes left, but Drexel was able to cut the deficit to six, 32-26, heading into the break.

Johnson nearly had a double-double in the first half, scoring 10 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

The Stags had control of the game for most of the second half, never letting the Dragons within four points until the 6:27 mark when Tramayne Hawthorne hit a three-pointer to make it 51-48. But Fairfield opened the lead back up to seven with 3:30 to play in the game and then Drexel cut the lead to one, 61-60, on an Evan Neisler layup with 31.7 seconds left.

Fairfield made 5-of-6 free throws in the next 30 seconds to seal the victory.

“I am very happy with the result,” Cooley said. “The [Puerto Rico tournament] came into effect, we were resilient and didn’t fold. We have played some tough teams, Virginia Tech, Missouri, even Chattanooga.

“We have a veteran group which is fun to coach. I don’t have to get as worried as I had to the past two years.”

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