A.J. English led all scorers with 31 points as Iona put on defensive clinic against Monmouth, holding Hawks to 67 points after giving up 110 in New Rochelle last month. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)
WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ -- From the moment the final buzzer went off on January 15, signaling Monmouth's statement-making victory in a 110-102 triumph over Iona whose score was much closer than the game let on, all eyes shifted to the second meeting between the two schools five weeks later.
Round two lived up to the hype as well, but with one exception.
Admittedly, very few could have predicted the defensive masterpiece that the Gaels (16-10, 13-4 MAAC) put together Friday evening, but it was the key to a dominant 83-67 win over a Monmouth team previously undefeated on its home floor, dropping the Hawks to 22-6 overall, and 14-3 in conference play.
"I was very happy with how we defended," said head coach Tim Cluess after Iona answered the ball during a 19-0 run midway through a first half in which the Gaels held Monmouth to just four field goals over its final 16 minutes. "I thought we had some lapses at times and there was a lot of room for improvement still, but I thought our energy was really good and I think that's what we start with; trying to get a lot of energy out of our guys, and they did a good job with that part."
Monmouth came out the aggressor in the opening minutes, establishing a 14-10 lead just before the first media timeout, hinting that this game would resemble the track meet the Hawks got into at the Hynes Athletics Center last month. But Iona had other ideas, clamping down on the defensive end, particularly on the three-point line, where Monmouth shot just 6-for-28 for the entire game.
"I thought Tim had their guys extremely ready to play," Monmouth head coach King Rice candidly admitted. "I did not have my guys ready for the intensity of this, and once again, they got away from us. That happens. All the credit to Iona for how they played tonight."
Monmouth threatened to close in through the final minutes, cutting a 22-point deficit in half on multiple occasions, but every time the Hawks drew nearer, English responded with one clutch shot after another, driving dagger after dagger into the hearts of the conference leaders.
"You can't say enough great things about A.J. and how he helped carry our team through this," a proud Cluess would say of his senior leader's performance. "He fights on both ends, leads all the time by example with his play on the court, and I'm just lucky to coach him."
In a game where Iona took a 44-25 lead into the locker room at halftime and led by as many as 22 in the second half, their effort Friday could be construed as a message that Monmouth's implied coronation as MAAC champions was not etched in stone. English, however, refused to feed into that notion, simply stating his team just imposed their will stronger on this night.
"We don't look to send messages to anybody," the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year said. "We just look to play every MAAC game, it doesn't matter who we play. We just want to keep playing Iona basketball."