A severely shorthanded Marist men’s basketball team playing without one of its best players earned a scrappy 60-51 road win over Fairfield on Friday night.
The Red Foxes dressed only seven scholarship players, blew a 13-point first-half lead, endured a nearly ten-minute scoring drought, but were still able to avoid a stress-free final few minutes against a Stags team that was previously undefeated in MAAC play.
Oh, and they did it all without their freshman star and two more starting-caliber players.
Marist was without its star freshman guard Jao Ituka, who joined redshirt senior center Victor Enoh, senior guard Raheim Sullivan, and freshman center Rollin Belton in health and safety protocols. The Red Foxes only dressed nine players (including two walk-ons) and were only one more positive test away from postponing the game.
Fairfield could certainly sympathize with the Red Foxes. The Stags had widespread COVID issues in their program and had to postpone two MAAC games. Friday’s game marked Fairfield’s first game in 15 days.
The MAAC mandates that if teams have eight scholarship players, they need to play. With seven scholarship players available, Marist technically could have tried to reschedule. In the end, the show went on. The Red Foxes’ performance wasn’t award-winning, but it certainly was gritty.
Without post players Enoh and Belton, graduate student center Jordan Jones was the lone tall tree left to man the middle. Jones held up admirably, staying out of foul trouble and finishing with 10 points and seven rebounds in 25 efficient minutes.
Sophomore Ricardo Wright took over the primary guard duties, finishing with 17 points and 10 rebounds to notch a double-double. He turned the ball over four times but still provided a steadying force in 35 minutes of action.
Without the team’s usual size, senior forward Braden Bell played the four and five spots off the bench. John Dunne used the 2-3 zone that befuddled Iona for much of the game on Dec. 1 to confound the Stags in the first half.
Fairfield only made two-of-13 shots from beyond the arc over the first 20 minutes and added 10 turnovers, which Marist turned into 10 points.
The Red Foxes focused on getting the ball inside in the opening minutes. Eighteen of Marist’s first 24 points came in the paint, with Jones scoring eight of those. Senior forward Samkelo Cele helped the Red Foxes extend their first-half lead to 32-19 with eight straight points.
Cele finished with 12 points on five-of-10 shooting in 32 minutes.
The Red Foxes stagnated over the final four minutes of the half, settling for contested jumpers instead of sticking to the inside game. Fairfield had opportunities to draw closer but cut the deficit to 32-25 at the break.
It only got uglier in the opening minutes of the second half. Marist ranks second-to-last in the country in assists, and the ball movement and quality looks from the field completely dried up. Graduate student guard Taj Benning hit a three to draw Fairfield within 32-31 with just over 15 minutes left.
Bell broke a nine-plus minute scoring drought and 12-0 Stags run with a three to make it 35-31. Still, Marist turned the ball over five times in the opening minutes of the half and gave the Stags their ticket back into the game. A three from senior guard Jake Wojcik tied the game at 35 with 13:47 left.
Bell far exceeded 2.4 points per game average, ending the night with a season-high 14 points off the bench. His three to break the scoreless spell might have been the game’s most important shot.
Just as it looked the Red Foxes had allowed their hosts back into the game, Marist snatched control right back. The Red Foxes answered with an 8-0 run to take a 43-35 lead with just over ten minutes left.
Soon, it became Fairfield’s turn to enter a lengthy scoring drought. As the Stags clanked shot after shot, Marist found its touch from deep. Triples from Wright, Bell, and freshman guard Noah Harris quickly made the score 54-37 with 6:27 left. Just like that, the game was practically over.
The Stags endured a nine-minute drought of their own, and Marist was able to cruise to its second MAAC win of the season, with walk-on graduate student guard Terrence Echols scoring his first career points to cap off the scoring for the Red Foxes.
Marist (7-6, 2-2 in the MAAC) put together a 25-of-60 (42 percent) effort from the field, not bad when you factor in the drought. They hit seven-of-22 from deep and managed to out-rebound Fairfield 41-40.
The Stags (8-6, 2-1 in the MAAC) shot 28 percent from the floor and a frigid 19 percent from three. They had problems executing against the Red Foxes’ defense and finished with 12 turnovers.
Wojcik led Fairfield with 14 points on five-of-13 shooting.
Marist will try to stay healthy between now and the game on Jan. 9 at home against Rider. With the new NCAA rules in place dictating when athletes can come out of quarantine, the Red Foxes could get their COVID-positive players back by the middle of next week.
If Marist can play against Rider on Sunday, they will once again be shorthanded. Tip-off with the Broncs is scheduled for 2 p.m. at McCann.
Edited by Bridget Reilly
Photo Credit: Luke Sassa