A.J. English led all scorers with 21 points as Iona completed season sweep of Saint Peter's. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)
JERSEY CITY, NJ -- While one of the Republican party's high-profile candidates entered the Iowa caucuses on Monday seeking a testimonial to his pledge of making America great again, one of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's superstars merely went about his business of leading his team to another win.
The results for Donald Trump are still being determined, but the final statistics for A.J. English showed a game-high 21 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists as Iona (12-9, 9-3 MAAC) held off a courageous rally to dispatch Saint Peter's (8-12, 6-5 MAAC) by the final of 75-67, completing a regular season sweep against the pesky Peacocks on their home floor at the Yanitelli Center.
"I just tried to keep playing basketball," English humbly stated as he guided the Gaels through a late threat from Saint Peter's, who got within five points in the final minute after being down as many as 20 earlier in the second half. "Every game I've played Saint Peter's, whether we're up or we're not, they're the type of team where they have a resume where they won't give up."
On the heels of one of the best defensive efforts under Tim Cluess, which came in a 70-56 pasting of bitter adversary Manhattan on Friday, Iona carried the momentum from that side of the ball over into the first half Monday night, surrendering only 27 points and holding Saint Peter's to just nine field goals in the opening stanza.
"That's what we're stressing more than anything else right now," said Cluess of his team's exploits on the defensive end. "Since that Fairfield game, (January 24) to be honest with you, that was the low point defensively. All we're trying to do right now is just play with effort. Whatever the score shows at the end, the score shows at the end, but if we play really hard, we'll give ourselves a chance every time out."
Trailing 59-39 with 10:44 to play in regulation, Saint Peter's slowly whittled away at their deficit, as John Dunne's teams have been reputed for over the years. A 13-5 run capped off by four points from Trevis Wyche, who finished with 15 on the night, brought the Peacocks within 12 at the 5:37 mark of the second half. Following a Deyshonee Much jumper that stretched the Iona lead to 14 with 3:11 on the clock, Saint Peter's would rip off an 11-2 spurt that made the score 72-67, but would get no closer the rest of the way.
"It's four games in a row now where we haven't shown up in the first half," Dunne lamented of his team's struggles to start the game. "It's getting to be very disappointing that we're not showing up to start games. We need to figure it out quick."
Despite the lack of immediate success, two bright spots emerged for the Peacocks on this night, as Quadir Welton and Elisha Boone both posted career-high point totals, collecting 19 and 15 points, respectively.
"I just took what the defense gave me, really," said Boone, the former Lincoln High School product who has taken on a larger role in his sophomore season. "Starting with the first half, I brought as much energy as I could off the bench, and it led into the second half."
"I think he's really beginning to learn how to play," Dunne expounded. "He's becoming cerebral on his cutting, when to cut, when not to cut. He's far better now than he was at any time last year, and his energy level is great."
Saint Peter's, who has now lost four straight heading into Friday's pivotal matchup at Siena, has been through stretches like this before, and as one of the more experienced voices in the locker room, Welton has urged his younger teammates to stay the course amid the adversity.
"I'm really just telling them to play hard all the time," the junior forward revealed, serving as a beacon of positive reinforcement to a youthful roster picked ninth among eleven in the MAAC's preseason poll. "Anything can happen in our league, anybody can beat anybody. If we play hard, just play together, you can win games."
Across the court, Iona now hits the road for their Western New York swing against Canisius and Niagara, wrapping up a three-game road trip where the Gaels are, according to their coach, still not where they need to be.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Cluess admitted, "and we're just going to concentrate and work to try to get better. We're nowhere near where we want to be, but we're on the right path and we need to stay on that path, because sometimes you do it for a little bit and then you stray. We don't want to stray."