The last time the Loyola men's basketball team met Fairfield, a bid to the NCAA tournament was at stake. The Greyhounds staggered to the finish line — and promise land — after the lowest-scoring Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament final in history.
In another grind-it-out win Friday night, Loyola trailed for most of the game but climbed back and took control early in overtime to beat the Stags, 63-58, before a sellout crowd of 2,100 at Reitz Arena and a national television audience (ESPNU).
"Fairfield seems to be one of those teams that creates a lot of excitement," Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos said after his team won its second overtime game in as many tries this season. "That was basically the same game we played last year to get to the NCAA tournament."
Senior captain Erik Etherly led Loyola (12-5, 4-1 in the MAAC) with 20 points, and junior guard Dylon Cormier (Cardinal Gibbons) finished with 19 points, eight of them in overtime. Senior guard Robert Olson added 12 points — including four straight free throws in the extra period — and eight rebounds.
Fairfield coach and Baltimore native Sydney Johnson, who starred at Towson Catholic before going onto Princeton, agreed that the ending — if not the game itself — was eerily reminiscent of what transpired last March in Springfield, Mass.
"It's not a team that we like to lose to, obviously there's a pretty strong rivalry there," Johnson said.
Asked what the difference was in the second half, Johnson said, "They made shots. I think we made shots the first half, but we didn't make shots in the second half. I loved the quality of the shots, but there were just too many that we didn't make."
Not that the Greyhounds were lighting it up. Loyola missed 31 of the 50 shots it took, including all eight of its 3-point attempts. But the Greyhounds made 25-of-34 free throws, including 10-of-12 in overtime. Fairfield built its halftime lead on the 3-point shooting of freshman center Josip Mikulic but missed all 10 of its 3-point tries in the second half and overtime.
Mikulic, a 7-foot-1 freshman from Croatia, led Fairfield (11-6, 3-2) with a career-high 16 points. He scored 14 of them coming in a first half in which he nailed four straight 3-point shots in one stretch and helped the Stags to a 33-27 halftime lead.
"We had a chat at halftime about a guy who can shoot threes [Mulicic] about 97 times the past four days," Patsos said. "We didn't yell. We said, 'We're not letting that guy get any more threes.'"
Both teams had a chance to win the game in regulation.
With the score tied at 47, a driving reverse scoop by Fairfield guard Desmond Wade hung on the rim before falling off with a little under than eight seconds left in regulation. Etherely advanced the ball past halfcourt as Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos called a timeout with six seconds remaining.
The Greyhounds didn't get off a shot. Senior guard Robert Olson was double-teamed and tried to get the ball inside to Etherly, but the pass was stolen as the clock expired. Both teams had 22 possessions in the second half, combining for 34 points.
A layup by junior center Jordan Latham to start the 5-minute overtime period gave Loyola its first lead since it was 14-13. After a layup by Fairfield's Maurice Barrow tied the game, Cormier gave the Greyhounds the lead for good on a layup with 2:49 to go.
Finishing the game wasn't easy, as an offensive foul by Cormier with a minute remaining and his team ahead 54-49 opened the door for Fairfield, which got as close as three points on three occasions but no closer as Loyola keep hitting its free throws.
Asked about the offensive foul, Cormier said, "That was a tough call, it could have went either way. I just picked my head up. It was the end of the game, so we had to finish it out and get a stop, that's all you can do."
The game began as their last game ended — with both teams struggling to score. The Greyhounds made just a third of their shots and scored only two points on free throws in the final six minutes of last year's conference final, but they still prevailed, 48-44, to earn their first NCAA tournament bid in 18 years.
On Friday, after scoring baskets on three of their first four possessions, the Greyhounds managed five points in their next dozen trips. The Stags missed eight of their first nine shots. The teams combined for one assist in the first 8 ½ minutes.
"We took the hit. As Muhammad Ali used to say, 'If you can take the hit, you can start hitting back," Patsos said. "I thought we absorbed some hits and fought back. With good teams, it's the last four minutes of the game."