Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos and his Greyhounds team celebrate… (US Presswire )
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos turned and pumped his fists in the direction of the team's cheering section during the second half of Monday night's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men's basketball title game. There was still a long way to go, but you could tell the ever-energized Patsos liked the way his team was playing.
His appreciation was rewarded. But it wasn't easy.
The Greyhounds held Fairfield scoreless in the final 1:01 of the first half and then 7:47 into the second, allowing Loyola to post a 48-44 victory that gave Loyola (24-8) its first MAAC championship since 1994 and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The second-seeded Greyhounds, surviving a game where neither team could score with any consistency, trailed by four at halftime but scored the first nine points of the second half. They never trailed again in winning the school's second conference title.
The fourth-seeded Stags (19-14), who upset No. 1 seed Iona on Sunday and played the tournament without injured point guard Derek Needham (broken foot), made a late push and almost pulled it out.
Loyola then came out and played a smothering defense that forced Fairfield to miss its first 13 shots of the second half, en route to a 14-point half that gave second-seeded Loyola (24-8) the win and the automatic NCAA bid.
Later, Patsos said he thought his team deserved a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament, and also said he thinks 25-win Iona, the MAAC's regular season champion, should receive an at-large bid.
Fairfield (19-14) didn't score a point in the last 61 seconds of the first half and then didn't score again until Desmond Wade hit a free throw with 11:12 left in the game. It was another minute before Colin Nickerson hit Fairfield's first basket of the half.
There would be only five more.
But the last of those, a long bomb by Wade as the shot clock was winding down, cut a six-point Loyola lead in half with 2:41 left. And the Stags would have additional chances, but couldn't score.
Loyola, which converted eight field goals in the second half, got a free throw from Shane Walker with 2.8 seconds left, its only point of the final 5:05.
The teams, both looking like tired boxers in the final minutes, combined to shoot 29-for-97 (29.8 percent) from the floor and 5-for-19 from 3-point range, in the lowest-scoring MAAC title game ever.
"We're incredibly disappointed. It's everything that we worked for," Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. "We had a summer trip to Italy and almost from Day 1, in preparation for that trip, we were talking about playing for and winning a MAAC championship, so we're pretty crushed."
Loyola forward Erik Etherly, battling foul trouble from the start (two fouls in the first 1:16), managed 10 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals and was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
Patsos was worried about Fairfield's size and strength coming in, and Loyola's cause wasn't helped when its two major big people, Etherly and Walker, got into early foul trouble.
Swingman Rakim Sanders led Fairfield, which upset top-seeded Iona Sunday, with 12 points, but he was 3-for-14 from the floor, including 1-for-9 in the second half.
NOTES: Patsos has a pair of cufflinks given to him by Red Auerbach, that read "6-and-22," which was Patsos' record in his first year at Loyola. Monday night, Patsos evened his eight-year record at 122-122. ... Loyola's Anthony Winbush, who hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the first half, had been 3-for-15 from behind the arc on the season, 4-for-26 the past two seasons. ... Teammates Robert Olson and Justin Drummond joined Etherly on the All-Tournament team, along with Sanders and Wade of Fairfield and Iona's Scott Machado.