Second-half defense fuels Hamilton’s comeback win over Fairfield in tourney opener

Watching Hamilton score just 14 points in the first half of its Division I sectional tournament on Friday against Fairfield had at least one observer scouring the Internet trying to find out the Big Blue’s single-game season low in points.

The point was moot by the end of the third quarter.

Hamilton used a 23-4 third quarter to wipe out a 25-14 halftime deficit and ended up blitzing the Indians for a 57-40 win at Lakota West.

Senior guard Kristian Walton scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half while classmate Trey Robinson was scoring eight of his overall 13 to help propel the eighth-seeded Big Blue to a second-round matchup against 13th-seeded Mount Healthy on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Fairfield. Hamilton beat the Fighting Owls, 82-68, on Jan. 25.

“We just said we had to play our game,” said the 6-foot-2 Walton, who was 5-for-8 from the field and 5-for-5 on free throws. “We knew that, if they could score 25, we could score way more than that.”

Hamilton (17-6) won a tournament game for the first time since the 2015-2016 season and reached 17 wins for the first time since the 2006-2007 season.

“I’ve liked this team from Day One,” coach Kevin Higgins said. “I don’t know about other people, but I know we can guard.”

The key for Big Blue was turning up the defensive pressure in the second half. Hamilton forced seven turnovers after halftime and turned them into a 10-2 advantage in points off of turnovers, a statistic Fairfield dominated in the first half with a 10-0 margin.

“We quit playing tentatively,” Higgins said. “We weren’t playing defense like we normally do. It all starts at the defensive end. That third quarter is about as well as we can play defensively.

“We were down 11 points, but that’s just five possessions. That’s what we tried to do. We were able to get some turnovers and score.”

Freshman guard Deshawne Crim led 18th-seeded Fairfield (7-16) with 14 points, eight in the first half. Senior guard Zavian Ricks added 10 for the Indians, who lost six of their last seven games and split the two-game regular-season series with Hamilton.

“Offensively, we started off really well,” Fairfield coach D.J. Wyrick said. “Our bench was locked in. They were yelling out their (Hamilton’s) actions. We struggled to defend in the second half. We turned the ball over, and the ball wasn’t going in the hole in the second half.”

Fairfield shot 62.5 percent (10-of-16) from the field, including 57.1 percent (4-of-7) on 3-pointers, before halftime. The Indians plummeted to 18.5 percent (5-of-27) overall and 20 percent (2-of-10) on 3-pointers in the second half. Hamilton was 4-of-16 for 24 percent overall and 1-of-5 for 20 percent on 3-pointers in the first half and 13-of-22 for 59.1 percent overall and 3-of-5 for 60 percent on 3-pointers in the second half.

“We guarded well in the first half, but they got loose a couple of times in the second half,” Wyrick said. “They picked up the pressure defensively.”

Walton admitted that beating border-rival Fairfield made the win even sweeter.

“That was nice,” he said. “We lost to them at the beginning of the season. We’re friends and everything, but they were talking. They wanted to play us in the first round. They were coming for us.”

The Indians finished 7-16 for the second time in three seasons after going 9-15 last season, but Wyrick feels the program finished the season on the right track, despite the loss to Hamilton.

“We made strides,” he said. “The record might not show it, but I think we’ve been playing our best basketball of late. We have to learn how to handle adversity.”

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