As Justin Robinson and Monmouth head into Friday's matchup with Iona, Hawks are fueled by memories of last encounter with Gaels and are intent on settling score. (Photo courtesy of the New York Post)
For Monmouth, March 8, 2015 is a day the Hawks have yet to forget.
On that afternoon, the Hawks were forced into the role of witnesses to a shooting clinic for the ages, as Iona unleashed a long-distance barrage in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals, draining a conference-record 19 three-pointers in a 95-77 drubbing that earned the Gaels a third consecutive trip to the championship game. Iona would go on to lose to Manhattan once again, but the impression left on Monmouth was strong enough to still resonate ten months later.
"The crazy thing is, Iona was picked to win the league," head coach King Rice candidly admitted. "The last time we played these young men, they had me feeling awful. They are the best team, they've shown it over time. We're excited. We're still the new guy on the block, trying to get up into their clubhouse."
With all of Monmouth's impressive wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule, it can be easy for a team that is experienced, yet still somewhat young as these Hawks are, to get too amped up for a game of such magnitude. Yet Rice has done a remarkable job of keeping expectations tempered, and reminded everyone that each night is one game, no more important than the last or the next.
"If we can be a team that focuses," Rice intimated, "I want to see how many people can beat us. The Golden State Warriors are doing it, and they've got 82 of them to do. You can see those guys are focused on each individual game. Can we really be that focused for seven weeks? We're going to find out."
Against an Iona team that will bring a 26-game home winning streak into the Hynes Athletics Center Friday night, focus is a prerequisite for Monmouth. If the Hawks can channel their last trip to New Rochelle, that would be a start. On February 22, Monmouth built a 16-point lead early in the second half, only to let it evaporate prior to regaining the advantage in the final minutes of regulation. Leading 68-66, Monmouth needed only a stop in the final seconds, but A.J. English's go-ahead three-point play put the Gaels ahead by one, and Iona held on to clinch the regular season MAAC championship after game-winning attempts by Max DiLeo and Justin Robinson fell short at the buzzer.
"I'm hearing the building is going to be going crazy," Rice said of the sellout crowd for Friday's nationally televised contest. "We're going to do what we do. We want to stand up against them, and the last time we played them, they beat us so badly, they showed us that we were the little brothers. And we little brothers keep coming back, so we're going to come back and give it another try."