Thursday, January 7, 2016

English scores 24 as Iona defense extends home winning streak

A.J. English led all scorers with 24 points as Iona won 25th straight home game, defeating Rider 67-58 to improve to 5-0 in MAAC play. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Many coaches have said they have no problem with an ugly win, because at the end of the day, a win is still a win.

Iona proved the old cliché true on Thursday, where despite just six three-point field goals and being held under 70 points for the second consecutive game, the Gaels were able to clamp down on the defense enough to hold their opponent under 60, defeating Rider by the final of 67-58, extending Iona's winning streak at the Hynes Athletics Center to 25.

"I'm really proud of them for that," Tim Cluess said of his team, "because we needed our defense to get a lot better, regardless of who we were playing out there on our team, and the fact that we played shorthanded a lot of games and have been able to continue to get better in that area is great."

Iona (8-6, 5-0 MAAC) was led by A.J. English, whose 24 points paced all scorers on an evening in which the Gaels ended the night as the MAAC's lone undefeated program, as previously unbeaten Saint Peter's suffered a tough road setback against Niagara. Isaiah Williams' 15 points were complemented by nine rebounds, while Jordan Washington was the third Gael in double figures, with 11 points in 15 minutes off the bench.

"They're just good," said Rider head coach Kevin Baggett of his opponent, who sent the Broncs (4-11, 0-4 MAAC) to their eighth loss of 10 points or less. "A.J. English is a big part of that. They've got a good cast of guys on that team that are really good players and they make it difficult. They're really good at home in particular, they're well-coached, and they're a good team."

To Rider's credit, they were able to control the tempo through most of the night, even after Iona opened up the first 1:41 of the game with seven straight points, prompting Baggett to call a timeout as a crowd of 1,277 sensed the Gaels' high-powered offensive attack would feast on a Rider team that has had difficulty scoring the basketball. But the Broncs, who led the MAAC in defensive efficiency last season, returned to their roots, and led for the majority of the opening stanza after getting a combination of stops and an Iona cold spell to play into their hands.

"We did a good job of slowing them down to more of our pace," said forward Xavier Lundy, who led Rider with 18 points in the losing effort. "I feel like the game was at our pace for the most part, so yeah, I think we did a good job with that."

Iona used a 9-2 run spanning the end of the first half and start of the second to take a 33-31 lead shortly after the intermission, and the game would stay a one-possession affair until the final minutes, when the Gaels broke a 55-all tie with eight straight points, culminating in a dagger of a three-pointer by Ibn Muhammad with 1:22 remaining.

"I thought Iona did a really good job down the stretch when the game was close," Baggett said. "They did a better job of executing and taking care of the ball, and putting the ball in the right players' hands at the right time."

Of Rider's late-game struggles and close losses, the Broncs' fourth-year leader offered this honest assessment:

"When the game's on the line, we don't do the little things that winning teams do, in terms of taking care of the ball, the right guys taking the right shots and making the right shots. We just turn the ball over at inopportune times, we don't block out, and then when we're on the free throw line, we've got to make our free throws when the game's on the line, and we didn't do that either."

Both teams return to action in home affairs on Saturday, with Rider hosting Fairfield while Iona looks to extend their home floor winning streak to 26 against Marist.

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