Iona head coach Tim Cluess gets lifted up atop the shoulders of his players as his Gaels defeat Manhattan 60-57 for program's first MAAC championship since 2006. (Photo courtesy of The Mid-Majority's Ray Curren)
Iona is back in the NCAA Tournament, and this time, there is no controversy surrounding the Gaels' presence among the field of 68.
Following an at-large appearance in last year's bracket and a trip to Dayton that left a bad taste in the mouths of the four remaining players from a loss to Brigham Young where Iona lost a 25-point lead in the second half, the Gaels earned their spot this time around, defeating Manhattan by the final of 60-57 to bring the New Rochelle school its first conference championship since 2006, when Gael legend Jeff Ruland was at the helm.
"It's the memory of a lifetime for me," a visibly jubilant Tim Cluess, who two days prior celebrated his 54th birthday with a quarterfinal victory over Canisius, said after the game, "and I'm hoping it's one of the memories of a lifetime for them."
After Manhattan led 26-24 at halftime behind their trademark suffocating defense, Iona slowly and methodically began to break down the Jasper wall. A technical foul assessed to Manhattan coach Steve Masiello in the second half in the midst of a 13-2 Iona run led to four more points for the Gaels in the next 24 seconds, giving Iona a 10-point lead that Manhattan threatened to cut into, but ultimately proved insurmountable.
"God had a plan for us," said Momo Jones, who had 14 points last night and was named the tournament's most valuable player just four days after earning regular season MAAC Player of the Year honors. "These three games, He helped us pull them out."
God was not the only spiritual element working in favor of the Gaels, as the spirits of former coach Jim Valvano; who would have celebrated his 67th birthday on Sunday, as well as Cluess' late brothers Greg and Kevin, not to mention Mike Haynes, the incoming recruit who was tragically slain over the summer, were also shining down on Iona.
Back on the court, Tre Bowman had arguably the game of his life, contributing 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting to lead all scorers. "For me, it feels great to actually make the tournament," the former Penn State transfer said. "I'm proud of the team and I'm proud of myself for making it."
As the Gaels celebrate their championship victory, they will now await their fate on Selection Sunday with the other 67 teams in the field, this time in a celebration that is sure to be far more boisterous than last year's low-key affair, which saw Cluess and his assistant coaches watch the revealing of the field in a separate location from the players.
"Like I said from the beginning of the season, we were going to make the tournament the right way," said junior guard Sean Armand, whose development into a proven second scorer made Iona so explosive and formidable throughout the year. "Hard work pays off no matter what you do, and this shows it right here."
So does the MAAC championship trophy the Gaels will bring back to New Rochelle, as does their rightful place in the brackets this weekend.