BALTIMORE --- Run down the numbers, and it's clear defense will be Loyola's defining trait as it attempts to successfully defend its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title.It
It isn't just the case when the Greyhounds face Fairfield. It just happens to be especially true in those showdowns --- such as Loyola's 63-58 overtime victory Friday at Reitz Arena.
"That was basically the same game you saw last year for us to go to the NCAA [tournament]," coach Jimmy Patsos said.
Indeed, there were some similarities. That game didn't even make it into the 50s, a 48-44 grinder where every possession carried immense importance given the stakes.
Neither Loyola (12-5, 4-1 MAAC) nor Fairfield (10-7, 2-3) cracked 50 points until overtime in their first meeting since that conference title game 10 months ago. Each had a mere 22 possessions in the second half. And both failed to get decent shots in end-game situations, each team taking turns suffocating the other.
"Everything means more," Loyola guard Dylon Cormier said.
So it was that Loyola, first in the MAAC scoring defense, field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and blocked shots, simply didn't bother to permit Fairfield much of anything when it actually mattered in the end-game.
It turned out to be necessary, seeing as how Fairfield built a six-point lead at the break and then maintained an edge of between two and six points for nearly the entire second half. It was almost static; not poorly played, but the situation barely changed for seemingly an hour even as the game clock shrank.
Yet Loyola always had Erik Etherly (20 points) and Cormier (19 points) and Robert Olson (12 points), three anchors of last year's NCAA team who understand the need to live possession to possession --- especially against familiar foes.
They also know what can happen when there's a lapse, such as two weeks earlier when Loyola wasn't quite itself while getting rolled by a superb Bucknell bunch.
The Greyhounds had no interest in a rewind, especially at the break.
"We'll keep it to five, six, seven, eight, but it'll stop growing and we'll figure out what to do later," Patsos said.
It was still at six with 4:47 left and Fairfield up 47-41. The Stags wouldn't score again in regulation, and the Greyhounds needed almost three minutes to cobble together the possessions necessary just to tie it.
"In that kind of game, two points was like four points," Etherly said. "A two-point lead is a pretty good lead."
And a five-point lead in overtime probably felt insurmountable --- which it may as well have been with 1:18 to go in the extra period. By that point, Loyola's defense owned the game; the Stags had managed one field goal in nearly nine minutes,
"It reminded me of the championship game a lot," Cormier said. "It was like a slugfest out there. They hit us and we hit back."
Loyola delivered the last punch, and as a result ensured it remained in first place.