Monday, March 7, 2016

Iona holds off Monmouth to win MAAC championship

Iona is headed to NCAA Tournament for third time in five years after fending off Monmouth to win MAAC championship, defeating top-seeded Hawks in 79-76 thriller. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)

By Norman Rose (@ECoastBias)

It started off slowly, but the 2016 MAAC Championship was a hard fought, often entertaining brawl between the two best teams in the league.

And this time, the team play and dramatic finish overshadowed the individual skills of the two best players.

Iona (22-10) is going to the NCAA Tournament as the MAAC representative for the first time since 2013, and third time in five years, after defeating the top-seeded Monmouth Hawks, (27-7) 79-76, in the Times Union Center.

"What a game!" Iona's Tim Cluess exclaimed, victorious. "I'm so proud of this team, they played their hearts out. They worked as hard as any team I've ever coached over the last two months. I love it when hard work pays off for them."

And the ride isn't over. Isaiah Williams, looking to the future, is excited for finally reaching the NCAA Tournament. 

"I think a lot of people are going to sleep on us," he said. "If we keep going with the mindset we have going, we can get a couple of wins.

Iona was led by 19 points by A.J. English and 17 by Williams, who carried the Gaels for stretches in the first half. Jordan Washington had 13 of his 15 in the second half, and added 13 rebounds, while Deyshonee Much added 15 as well.

A technical foul on Monmouth's Josh James came with 4:05 left in the game after he tied the game on a driving layup from the right side and said something to one of the Iona players. It was the worst possible time, as the Hawks had been fighting off a late spurt from the Iona Gaels and needed every point to stave off the No. 2 seed for the automatic bid.

"It's just funny," King Rice said, keeping tight-lipped, but annoyed. "The whole game is chirping, Josh gets a bucket, says something back - [he gets a] technical."

English, the MVP of the MAAC Tournament, hit the two free throws, and Iona went back to work, with Washington making a difference inside the arc and Much attacking as part of an inexorable team effort.

"At the end of the day I'm just thankful for the win," said English. "The years we lost, [in the championship game] we knew we could have won," Williams chimed in. "We just finished it this year."

"Tonight we talked that we need to get four guys to step us for us to win," Cluess added. "And we needed that."

"They're a good team," Rice said. "We just didn't get it done. Got beat by a better team." Still, Monmouth cut a five-point deficit to two in the final 30 seconds of the game, but it was enough to hold off the Gaels. The Hawks will now wait to see if their name is called as one of the last at-large seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

"I believed that all along [that this is an NCAA team]," Rice lobbied.  "I think our kids have earned the right to continue. A lot of people say we're gonna get in, a lot of people say we won't. But we will be ready to go to the NIT."

"I think we should be [in the tournament]," added Je'lon Hornbeak, "but it's not up to me, it's not in our hands." Cluess agreed.

"With the year they had," he said, "I expect them to get in."

It was a close game; Iona scored 1.08 points per possession and Monmouth scored 1.06 in the game. Iona was a little crisper with the ball with only ten turnovers (14% of their turnovers) to Monmouth's seventeen turnovers (24% of Monmouth possessions), that may have been the difference.

King Rice commented that his team came out tight in the semifinal against Siena the previous night, that he needed to get them to loosen up and play ball. It happened again, with the Gaels and the Hawks trading soft missed jumpers. The Hawks were down as much as six points in the first half before turning to sixth man Austin Tilghman to change the flow of the game. It took some time, but a late 8-0 run before the under-4 timeout gave them the tie as Hornbeak (who made the all-tournament team) hit two threes in the stretch. The Hawks made five straight three-pointers as they increased the lead to four. Monmouth couldn't get more than three possessions ahead, however, and Washington - for once not saddled by foul trouble, started to get paint touches. As one of the nation's leading foul-shot creators inside, he showed his strength and mettle, working a two-man game with English. He would wait for English to draw a double team, and then pass to Washington to put his wide frame to work. A three-pointer by Much with five minutes left gave them the lead, and Josh James' lack of composure (or reasonable excitement) opened the door wider for Iona.

Monmouth got 20 points from Je'lon Hornbeak and 14 from Justin Robinson, who had an off night from the field, (2/9 with a pair of airballs) but shot 9/12 from the free throw line. Robinson had 12 of his points in the second half.

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