A.J. English's go-ahead three-point play in final minute ensured Iona of third regular season MAAC championship in four years, as Gaels defeated Monmouth 69-68 at Hynes Center. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)
A day that began with celebration ended in much the same way, albeit with more than just a few plot twists in between.
On a doubleheader Sunday in New Rochelle that began with senior shooting guard Damika Martinez being recognized for becoming the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's all-time leading women's basketball scorer, Iona had a standard to live up to, even if the Lady Gaels suffered a narrow defeat to Quinnipiac. Fortunately for the home crowd, one of their other brethren in contention for Player of the Year honors took care of business.
For the second time in just over a week, A.J. English handled the final outcome, his go-ahead three-point play with 34 seconds remaining in regulation serving as the play that lifted Iona (23-6, 16-2 MAAC) past Monmouth (16-13, 12-6) by the final of 69-68, not only erasing a 16-point deficit; but also securing the Gaels' second straight regular season MAAC championship, and third time in the last four seasons.
"I was just trying to get contact," English said of what proved to be a game-winning shot that harkened back to his three-pointer to beat Manhattan nine days ago; only this one was a jumper from the left elbow in which he got Monmouth's Max DiLeo to lean into him as the ball left his hands, tying the game at 68 before draining the ensuing foul shot.
"I really thought he was going to do what he did against Manhattan," a candid DiLeo remarked of the exchange. "He makes game-winning plays. That's a tough shot, and a dumb play by me."
The Hawks had a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after Iona knocked Justin Robinson's potential game-winning drive out of bounds with 2.8 seconds to go, but DiLeo's baseline jumper rimmed out just before the buzzer, setting off a raucous celebration just north of New York City.
"I tripped up a little bit," DiLeo said of his final attempt, "but I was still open. I was close, but it didn't go in."
For most of the night, though, it looked as though English's heroics would not even be necessary, as Monmouth jumped on Iona midway through the first half, seizing control of the game on a 22-4 run to end the opening stanza with a 40-26 cushion as David Laury was hampered by three fouls before the intermission. A layup from Robinson, whose 24 points tied Laury for the game high, gave the Hawks their largest lead, a 44-28 advantage just 80 seconds removed from the halftime break.
Iona did not go away from there, regaining the lead with a 27-6 spurt that blew the roof off the Hynes Center when Schadrac Casimir's three-pointer with 13:00 remaining in regulation gave the Gaels a 49-48 lead, an edge that was stretched out to five as Kelvin Amayo culminated the outburst with a putback of English's missed jumper just over two minutes later. Monmouth would answer back with a 9-3 stretch to regain the lead on an Andrew Nicholas layup with 6:50 on the clock, and two free throws from Robinson later in the half would position the Hawks with a 67-63 margin in their favor entering the final 2:53 of the game.
On the ensuing possession, Casimir's fourth and final three of the evening brought Iona within one before Deon Jones added a point to the Monmouth lead with the first of two free throws, his second grazing the front rim before bouncing off with a minute remaining, setting the stage for English's latest star turn as the Gaels assured themselves of a postseason appearance for the fifth consecutive year, continuing Tim Cluess' streak of playing deep into March in every season that he has patrolled the sidelines since replacing Kevin Willard in 2010.
"I'm really proud of my team tonight," a satisfied Cluess proclaimed. "They found a way to fight back in a game that looked like we would lose by 30. If we give our best effort every time out, more often than not, we'll get good results."