Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Iona, Monmouth remind us just why mid-major hoops is so widely loved

A.J. English and Justin Robinson embrace after English's Iona team held off Robinson and Monmouth to win MAAC championship and punch ticket to NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

ALBANY, NY -- It is moments like these that remind us why we, as a general viewing public, are so captivated by mid-major college basketball.

Two teams, fighting tooth and nail for a shared common goal. To the winner, an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the holy grail of the sport. For he who comes up short, still an opportunity to compete in a postseason tournament, but most likely a chance to ponder what could have been had they succeeded and earned the right to position themselves among the field of 68.

And that was what Iona and Monmouth brought to a nationwide audience Monday night at the Times Union Center, producing yet another MAAC championship game worthy of being placed among the archives. The Gaels, now conference tournament champions for a record ninth time, did what they could not do in either of the past two years during their epic encounters with their bitter rival Manhattan: Get over the hump. It took 39 minutes and 58 seconds to finally put away a 27-win Monmouth team that gave Iona as many fits over the course of the night as the Hawks' media darling bench made fans this season, but at the end of the night, the pride of New Rochelle; whose women's basketball program won its first-ever MAAC crown with a commanding victory over reigning champion Quinnipiac, got their deserved redemption and made history in the process, becoming just the third school in the 35-year history of their league to take home both the men's and women's trophies on the same day.

"I can't believe it," Isaiah Williams, who had long been both Iona's X-factor and Monmouth's nemesis dating back to his unforgettable three-point shooting bonanza a year ago; when Iona unleashed 19 treys to put the Hawks away in last year's semifinals, would say afterward. "We talked about it for the last three years, and we finally got it. I'm still in shock."

So too was Monmouth, but for different reasons. The season will go on for both teams, with the Gaels assured of hearing their name called by Greg Gumbel in five days. Monmouth will need to watch the scoreboard all week to see where they stand on the bubble, despite assurances from head coach King Rice and guard Je'lon Hornbeak that both feel they are an NCAA-caliber outfit. In the interim, though, they can take solace in the fact that they, along with Iona, symbolized the 40-minute fight that makes mid-major college basketball so attractive in the first place.

"What a game," Tim Cluess proclaimed upon entering his postgame press conference, with the Gaels' shiny new hardware firmly in tow.

Indeed it was.

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