Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Shorthanded Iona edges Texas Southern for 22nd straight home win

With A.J. English and Schadrac Casimir unavailable, Isaiah Williams picked up offensive slack with 21 points and eight rebounds as Iona held off Texas Southern, 83-73. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Injuries to two of its biggest contributors may have tested Iona tonight, but at the end of the day, the machine rolls on.

Playing without the services of A.J. English and Schadrac Casimir, the Gaels (4-3) weathered a storm from pesky Texas Southern for nearly 39 minutes before pulling away in the final 90 seconds to defeat the Tigers (1-9) by the final of 83-73, marking Iona's 22nd consecutive victory on their home floor at the Hynes Athletics Center, a new school record.

"I think it says more about the Hynes Center and the fans, how great they are," head coach Tim Cluess commented following Iona's first contest in eight days, citing the home court advantage his program has come to possess as equally significant a factor as the depth on his roster. "They inspire us to win. Our guys had a lot of grit and determination, they never give up. They took this as another challenge, and they accepted it and played really hard."

Isaiah Williams became the focal point of the Gaels' high-powered attack in the absence of English, who underwent surgery for a broken bone in his non-shooting hand following Iona's loss to Tulsa last week, amassing 21 points and eight rebounds in an effort that was praised for the senior forward showing just how dynamic a talent he can be.

"We needed him to step up in a big way tonight," Cluess said of Williams. "He knew he had to take more on his shoulders. We texted about it earlier in the week that I think he's that kind of player, that he should do it regardless of who we have playing, because he's got the ability to do that. Sometimes you get comfortable within your role on a team, and I think for him, it was nice that he stepped outside that role and showed what he really is as a player."

Jordan Washington's 22 points led Iona, while freshman Jahaad Proctor tallied 16 points off the bench. Orlando Coleman's 23 points for Texas Southern paced all scorers in a losing effort.

Although the Gaels never trailed, they were never given a chance to settle into a rhythm through the first half, as Texas Southern had an answer for every Iona possession, be it on the offensive or defensive end. The Tigers went into the locker room trailing by just four points, 38-34, at halftime, and kept their deficit within single digits through the first eleven minutes after the intermission, until a stretch of eight straight Iona points in 69 seconds gave the Gaels a 70-57 advantage with 7:51 to play in regulation.

What looked like the game-defining run for Iona was immediately countered with a 12-2 Texas Southern spurt, turning the game back into a one-possession affair with 4:18 remaining, the Gaels only holding a slim 72-69 edge at that juncture. The lead was soon pared to two points, but the Tigers would draw no closer after Ibn Muhammad's three-pointer with 2:21 to go extended the Iona cushion to 77-72. The hosts would close the contest by scoring six of the final seven points, passing a stern test without two of their more explosive weapons.

"I'm just proud of my guys for the way they fought," Cluess stated. "We found a way to win. A lot of guys stepped it up, and I think it was a really good team effort."

NOTES: On English, Cluess updated his status by revealing he was "game-to-game." "He's going to the doctors twice a week just to see how his hand is healing and all that, so hopefully sooner rather than later," Cluess said. The senior point guard and MAAC Preseason Player of the Year underwent surgery earlier this week after playing through his injury last week against Tulsa, and there is no set date on a return. Regarding Casimir, a return is further off the horizon than his backcourt partner. "I don't know if he's going to be back," Cluess admitted. "He's still being evaluated by doctors. We're sending him for second opinions right now, so we don't know if or when he will be back. We have a lot of guys right now who are under care of doctors and they're not easy fixes to their injuries, so it's more when their bodies or if their bodies heal from certain things. That's the situation we're in."

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