But the Fairfield power forward teamed up with center Rob Thomson to take advantage of the Harvard men’s basketball team’s understaffed, undersized and inexperienced front court and lead the Stags to a 65-60 win in both teams’ season opener.
Gai and Thomson combined for 27 points, 24 rebounds and seven blocks against the Crimson (0-1). Harvard was missing 7’0 sophomore center Brian Cusworth, who is out with a stress fracture, and 6’7 freshman Brian Darcy, who only recently began practicing, and had just four big men—none taller than 6’8—to throw at the 6’9 Gai and 6’10 Thomson.
That mismatch led to Harvard being outrebounded 47-37. The Stags (1-0) pulled down 18 boards off the offensive glass.
“That’s our main Achilles’ heel right now,” sophomore guard Michael Beal said. “We have to work on the defensive glass especially.”
Beal led the Crimson with eight rebounds, six of them defensive.
“It wasn’t that their big guys were any better than ours,” sophomore forward Matt Stehle said. “It was just a matter of us not boxing out.”
“When your guards are leading the team in rebounding, you’re not going to win too many games,” he added.
Harvard had the ball with 15 seconds remaining trailing by three, but couldn’t get off a shot after a timeout and had to burn another one. Beal tried to find junior three-point specialist Kevin Rogus, but Fairfield guard Michael Bell stole the ball with six seconds left to ice the game.
“We had two good shooters [Rogus and freshman guard Jim Goffredo] in the game,” Crimson coach Frank Sullivan explained. “The second screen didn’t develop nearly as quick as we thought it would. The first screen developed fine.”
“We’re trying to line two guys up for one shot in the short corner, one shot at the top of the key,” he continued. “We would have had Rogus going to his left. Those guys were just really too aggressive setting the first screen and not aggressive enough coming to get the second screen and we wind up getting a turnover.”
But, according to Beal, the team handled the disappointment well.
“That type of thing will happen and we’ll just have to bounce back from it,” he said. “The best thing about that was that the character of the team really showed after that play because every single person in the locker room after the game was saying, ‘It was my fault for that.’
“I said, ‘That’s my fault, Kev. That’s my fault, everybody, for making that bad pass.’ Kev said, ‘That’s my fault for not coming off the screen right.’ The big men said, ‘That’s my fault for not setting the screen in the right direction.’ Coach Sullivan said, ‘That’s my fault. I should have drawn up a different play’ and I think that’s really different from last year, where a lot of times people wouldn’t shoulder the blame.”
Harvard had been forced to battle back to a 25-25 tie at halftime after making just one of its first 18 shots over the game’s opening nine minutes and falling behind 13-2. Gai had four points, six rebounds and three blocks over that stretch, while Thomson chipped in with a jumper from the elbow, two offensive boards and a pair of blocks.
Rogus led the Crimson with 13 points, while Beal added 12 despite playing out of position at point guard, where he was constantly harassed by the Stags’ small, quick back court.
Before the game, few spectators expected Harvard—which lost all five of its opening-night starters from last year—even to remain close to Fairfield, which went to the National Invitation Tournament last year.
“It’s not like a moral victory where we feel good about ourselves for putting up a good fight or anything like that because we expect ourselves to win,” Beal said. “After the game, a lot of people came up to me and were like, ‘you all are a lot better than I thought’ and I was just like, ‘I’ve been telling you all all along that we are a very good team.’”
But Sullivan’s broader perspective allowed him to accentuate the positives more.
“The biggest thing—because we went in with so much unknown of our team—I think our guys have some confidence they can play,” he said. “This was a lot better than our exhibition game. It was clearly a lot better than our red-and-white game last Saturday, so I think they know that in the last 14 days, they’ve made some progress.
“Did they come down tonight nervous? Absolutely. Did they come down tonight kind of anxious? Absolutely. Did they come down tonight wondering, ‘How’s this even going to turn out? We don’t know’?” Yeah. But I think at the end of the day, they came out saying, ‘Oh, we can be all right.’”
—Staff writer Alan G. Ginsberg can be reached at email@example.com.