A.J. English erupted for 30 points and 14 rebounds as Iona defeated Rider 77-64 for first MAAC win of season. (Photo courtesy of Iona College)
Three days removed from what was one of their less desirable showings of the young season, Iona faced another obstacle tonight when one of their star players did not see action. Yet once again, as he had done several times for the Gaels last year, A.J. English came to the rescue.
The junior point guard and all-MAAC first team selection took matters into his own hands tonight at the Hynes Center, exploding for 30 points and 14 rebounds as the Gaels (5-3, 1-1 MAAC) overcame the loss of David Laury to defeat Rider (4-6, 1-1 MAAC) by the final of 77-64, evening their conference record after a bitter loss at Monmouth this past Sunday.
"He was a monster," head coach Tim Cluess said of English, who also added five assists to one of the best games of his already stellar career in New Rochelle. "For a guard to get 14 rebounds and score 30 points, he let it all hang out."
Every one of English's 30 markers was especially important on this night for Iona, as Laury, the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year selection, was benched for what was termed a violation of team rules. In his place, Ryden Hines made his first start of the year. But the night belonged to the Iona backcourt, who rebounded from Rider going up 7-2 early to go on a 15-4 run fueled by English, Schadrac Casimir; who finished with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and Ibn Muhammad, who was also making his first career start, getting the nod in place of Kelvin Amayo.
Rider was within four eight minutes into the game, but the Gaels countered with a 13-4 spurt that put them ahead 30-17 with 5:45 remaining in an opening stanza they eventually exited with a 40-28 halftime lead.
English's two three-pointers in the first 81 seconds after the intermission helped boost the Iona advantage to 17 points, but a combination of an offensive drought and the visiting Broncs finding holes in Iona's full-court pressure, made it a six-point game with 5:09 to play.
However, the Gaels' backcourt superhero provided the ensuing strike, as English's driving layup put Iona ahead 67-59 before Casimir stripped Rider's Khalil Alford and then fed Isaiah Williams for a three-pointer on the left baseline to extend the lead to 11 points, effectively icing the game as the Broncs missed eight of their final nine field goals over the final 6:11 of regulation.
"When you get a team scrambling and uncomfortable, they tend to miss a couple," Cluess revealed when explaining why he ratcheted the pressure in the waning minutes. "We played such poor defense last game, (a 92-89 loss to Monmouth) and we were hoping the energy on that end would be greater. They believed the fact that they needed to play with a lot more intensity on the defensive end."
Iona, who plays host to Indiana State on Saturday, forced 22 turnovers, a statistic the Broncs' head coach was not thrilled with.
"Way too many," Kevin Baggett remarked on his team's miscues. "We were playing too passive. On a night where David Laury isn't playing, you've got to take advantage of it, and we didn't do it." Jimmie Taylor, whose 16 points led the Broncs, continued: "We knew what they were going to do. We didn't do what we were supposed to do."
Baggett's counterpart, despite the career night from his floor general, put the win in perspective.
"Today, it was a team effort," Cluess declared, "and I don't think we've had that for a while."