When Fairfield's senior standout Taryn Johnson, a first-team all-league forward, picked up her fourth foul and went to the bench barely a minute into the second half of Saturday's semifinal-round game against Siena, the Saints' bench justifiably began celebrating as if the path to Monday's championship had become clearer.
And, why not? Johnson had made all four of her first-half shots and had proven to be a handful for Siena to handle. With her out, it stood to reason that Siena would be able to build on its 30-29 advantage and, just maybe, become the first sixth-seeded team in the history of the women's tournament to advance to its championship game.
Instead, the Stags showed that they're far more than a one-person team. They proved to be a team that had more arrows in the proverbial basketball quiver than just a magnificent inside player.
With Johnson out, Fairfield ran plays almost exclusively from the perimeter and its perimeter players, some of the best long-range shooters in the conference, delivered in a big way.
Siena initially did extend its lead to 35-32 with 13:56 remaining in the contest. But, it was all Fairfield after that.
The Stags went on a run that included 11-of-14 shooting down the stretch to pull away for a 63-48 victory and advance to the tournament championship game Monday at noon against the winner of the Marist-Niagara meeting in the other semifinal-round contest.
"When Taryn had to come out, we adjusted by spreading the floor and we were able to make a run," said Fairfield coach Joe Frager.
And, his team didn't need Johnson after that, only getting her back on the court for the final 1:30 when the game was well decided.
"We had planned to bring her back before that, but we didn't want to upset that flow."
The flow began when Alexys Vazquez, the nation's leader in 3-point shooting accuracy entering the game, made a long-range shot. Kate Linney, another standout shooter, made four buckets during the late-game surge, yet Siena was still within three, 47-44, with about 6:30 remaining.
And, then, senior point guard Desiree Pina stepped with a back-breaker trey to give the Stags a 50-44 lead, Siena came up on its next possession and Fairfield the next five times it had the ball to pull away.
Together, Fairfield's perimeter shooters finished 14-of-28 from the floor, 5-for-10 from three-point range and 8-of-13 in the second half after Johnson went to the bench.
It was enough, particularly Pina's clutch play down the stretch, to get Frager to choke up and fail to complete a thought when asked about Pina, the team's senior leader.
Someone at the post-game media session commented "It was a senior making big plays," to which Frager composed himself enough to say: "That's exactly what I was going to say."
Playing without Johnson, though, isn't exactly what Frager wanted to do Saturday. But, it might have affected a Siena team that had defended the Stags extremely wll before Johnson sat for much of the second half.
"They just have so many different plays and weapons," said Saints' coach Gina Castelli. "And our offense just stopped scoring. We didn't execute as well."
Siena got another strong game from first-team all-conference post player Lily Grenci (21 points, 9 rebounds) but no other Saint managed double figures.