Iona's Taaj Ridley wins opening tip of 2012-13 season as Gaels defeat Denver 65-58 in their season opener. (Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection)
Playing their first game since last March's infamous NCAA Tournament meltdown, Iona College wasn't expecting the same uneasy feeling in the second half. Only this time, though, as they had several times prior to having their 25-point lead over Brigham Young erased, the Gaels fought through it.
Following a first half that was textbook Iona since head coach Tim Cluess arrived in New Rochelle in 2010, the Gaels (1-0) allowed for a few tenuous moments down the stretch before righting the ship to defeat Denver (0-1) by the final of 65-58 at the Hynes Center. Iona started out strong in their season opener, shooting 61 percent (14-for-23) from the field in the first half to take a 40-17 lead into the intermission against the Pioneers, a team they defeated narrowly on the road last December.
"This year, we have to key in on our defense," said junior guard Sean Armand, who scored thirteen of his nineteen points in the first half. "We're probably not going to lead the nation in scoring again." Armand's backcourt partner Momo Jones led the Gaels with 20 points and seven assists, and echoed similar sentiments after the game. "We gotta play together for 40 minutes and not for 20 minutes," Jones said when asked about the Gaels' defensive struggles in the second half.
Jones, playing his first game as Iona's point guard following the graduation of Scott Machado, set the tone early and often for the Gaels, scoring the first points of the game prior to draining a three-pointer seconds later that propelled Iona to an early 5-0 lead. The senior's leadership qualities were tested in the final stanza, especially after Armand picked up his fourth foul. With Denver having chipped away at the Iona lead throughout the final half, Jones came up biggest in the final two minutes when the Gael advantage was a mere six points; first knocking down an uncontested three from the right wing, and then finishing off a transition pass from Armand for a bucket that gave Iona a 64-53 cushion which effectively put the game away.
"He (Armand) and Momo have become great leaders," Tim Cluess said after the game. "The two of them are much better leaders than anybody we've had here."
In addition to Jones and Armand, Tre Bowman had a solid game, contributing eleven points and four rebounds in his Iona debut after transferring from Penn State. Guard Tavon Sledge, also making his first appearance for the Gaels after being granted a hardship waiver following his exodus from Iowa State, chipped in with a well-rounded effort of six points to go with five assists and a team-high seven rebounds. Chris Udofia led Denver with 20 points.
Iona's next contest comes this Friday night from the Virgin Islands, when the Gaels tip off against Quinnipiac in their first game of the Paradise Jam.