WORCESTER, Mass. – Ed Cooley’s team is growing up, and it hasn’t come at a bad time.
Fairfield enters their next two games, both early MAAC contests, having won three straight games. They look like a team that is getting better each time out, and they certainly did that against a Holy Cross team that had knocked them off the last two years in similar kinds of games. Every time Holy Cross tried to rally, the Stags had answers, largely from Anthony Johnson (career-high 20 points) and floor leader Jonathan Han (18 points, 11 assists). And for good measure, they won on a night where leading scorer Warren Edney had just six points in 16 minutes due to foul trouble.
“We’re defending with a purpose, we’re sharing the ball, and the kids look like they’re having fun out there,” said Cooley.
Johnson, who’s always had the potential for a game like this, saw a difference in the team leading up to the game.
“These are games to look forward to,” said the junior forward. “We’ve lost to them two years in a row, and each year someone has gotten a blow to the face, someone’s gotten hurt. We came here ready to play.”
Clearly, Johnson and Han did, as an inside-outside duo capable of doing big things. Johnson has a solid body and is athletic for his size, and he’s always been capable of getting 15 points and 10 rebounds on average. Right now, he’s averaging over 10 and 7, respectively, while also showing some game-changing potential at nearly three blocked shots per game.
Han, whom Cooley called “The Maestro”, makes this team go. Take him away, and this is a very different team. Johnson said they would like Han to shoot more, but he’s proving adept at making others better and he has plenty of scorers around him. Four Stags scored in double figures on Monday, and four currently average double figures on the season. Han, with 6.6 assists per game, is certainly part of that.
“You get point guard play like that, you look like you can coach,” said Cooley with a smile.
Cooley’s opposite number noticed the difference in part because his team currently lacks that same kind of player, who is on the roster but injured.
“He does some things that sometimes, you scratch your head, but he’s the guy that makes things happen for them,” said Holy Cross head coach Ralph Willard.
The senior backcourt of Han and Herbie Allen together helps them play at a fast pace. Johnson can run the floor, as can Edney and reserves like Yorel Hawkins, and it’s helped the Stags improve offensively all season long. In each of the four prior games leading up to Holy Cross, they had scored more than the previous game. There was only a four-point drop-off in the Holy Cross game, but they shot 56 percent from the field and had 23 assists to 15 turnovers, so it’s not as if the Stags took steps back offensively.
Cooley wants this team to play faster and keep the scoring up. He sees the strides they are making offensively, especially since they have scored over 70 points in the last two games. And with St. Peter’s and Iona coming to Fairfield this weekend, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that the Stags could take a 2-0 MAAC record into the new year.
Besides all the positive signs of this team’s growth, there’s another one that’s seen in the locker room. The Stags aren’t getting content with just a win or two.
“We’re getting more hungry with every win we get,” said Johnson. “That’s a great thing.”
While the coaching staff has to be happy with the way the team is playing now, Cooley won’t even say they might be turning a corner or hitting their stride yet. He’s hoping students come out to support the team for the MAAC home games this weekend, as he feels “we got a quality ballclub.” This is also not the time he wants the team to really hit its stride, no matter how much he wants to win come game time.
“We want to hit our stride in March,” Cooley said. “Right now, we just want to continue to play good basketball.”