Friday, February 26, 2016

Iona's staunch defense overcomes slow start to sweep Manhattan

A.J. English's 23 points and six three-pointers vaulted Iona past Manhattan, despite Gaels being outscored 20-5 at start of game. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

RIVERDALE, NY -- After being outscored 20-5 in the first six minutes, it looked as if Iona's sizzling momentum would be brought to a screeching halt by their biggest rival.

That, though, was before the oft-overlooked aspect of the Gaels' repertoire was showcased.

Riding a second half in which their defensive efforts held Manhattan to just 25 points after a torrid opening stanza, Iona (18-10, 15-4 MAAC) was able to use that side of the ball to pull away in the final leg of a three-game road trip, leaving the Jaspers (12-16, 9-10 MAAC) in their wake as they exited Draddy Gymnasium with an 86-73 victory.

"Manhattan jumped all over us," head coach Tim Cluess said of the Gaels' 15-point deficit to begin the game. "They did a great job of coming at us in the beginning of the game, and our guys didn't lose composure. They fought back and kept playing hard the rest of the game."

Five Iona players, led by A.J. English with 23 points, ended the night in double figures as the Gaels earned their fourth win over Manhattan in the last five meetings between the two schools. But again, it was what Iona did without the basketball in their hands that was the deciding factor.

"At the end of the day, defense wins championships," English admitted, even though his six three-pointers, many of which came from beyond NBA range, played a role in Iona getting some separation from Manhattan in the second half. "It doesn't matter who has how many points, I don't look at those stats."

In front of a capacity crowd, Rich Williams captivated the Jasper faithful early and often, accounting for 13 of Manhattan's first 20 points en route to a career-high 27 markers, 24 of which came in a first half that saw the home team take a 48-43 lead into the locker room behind a 53 percent shooting effort from the floor.

"I just tried to come out and be aggressive, be the player that I am," said Williams of the blistering pace he set. "My teammates did a great job of finding me, so give them all the credit."

That changed after the intermission, where runs of 11-2 and 13-2 showed the potential of the Gaels' arsenal, but the two spurts were underscored by the visitors not giving Manhattan many opportunities to get easy shots down the stretch.

"I think they've always been good defensively," Steve Masiello said of Iona. "You're seeing their guys make smarter plays defensively. They know when to switch a pick-and-roll, they know when to front the post, they know when to double down. That comes with experience and time, and there's no substitute for that."

"We're actually playing defense," said Aaron Rountree of what Iona is doing somewhat differently as of late. "I know it sounds simple, but I think we're just putting more effort into making people take tough twos, contest every shot, contest every three. It's just an effort thing trying to fly around and win games defensively instead of relying on offense."

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