Monday, March 7, 2016

Iona returns to MAAC championship game for fifth time in six years

A.J. English exults after Iona books its reservation in MAAC championship game following 81-70 win over Siena in semifinals. English had 23 of his 29 points in second half. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

ALBANY, NY -- The matchup that fans and ESPN executives clamored for has come to fruition.

Behind 29 points from A.J. English, 23 of those in the second half, Iona (21-10) secured their fifth appearance in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game since 2010, defeating Siena (21-12) by the final of 81-70 to set up a rubber match with regular season champion Monmouth for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

"We're just really excited to still be playing tomorrow," head coach Tim Cluess said as the Gaels improved their all-time MAAC Tournament record against Siena to 8-0, with six of those wins coming on the Saints' home floor at the Times Union Center. "Our guys wanted to jump on them right from the start, and hopefully quiet the crowd early."

Iona was locked into a nip-and-tuck battle with Siena through most of the first half, but a 19-3 run to close the opening stanza broke the game open at halftime. The Gaels led 45-31 at that juncture, holding the Saints without a field goal for the final 7:40 of the period.

Siena struck first after the intermission on back-to-back layups from Javion Ogunyemi, and a 10-3 run shortly thereafter, capped off by a pair of three-pointers from MAAC Sixth Man of the Year Nico Clareth brought the Saints within five points with 13:51 to play in regulation. But every time Siena fought back, English would respond with a back-breaking three, as he has for the past several games.

"They were better than us today, make no mistake about it," Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos conceded. "Their shooters made shots, and ours didn't. They're like the (Golden State) Warriors, they're going to make threes. You're not going to hold them to 60. The Warriors aren't scoring 90 points. They're going to score 110, and you've got to keep up with them."

In addition to English, whose five assists and five steals supplemented his offense, Isaiah Williams recorded a double-double, with totals of 23 points and 11 rebounds. For Siena, four players ended the game in double figures, led by Clareth with 18 points and Brett Bisping, whose 16 points and nine rebounds came one board shy of a second straight double-double.

Iona, who was defeated by Manhattan in each of the last two MAAC championship games, now has an opportunity to win their second conference tournament under Cluess, and ninth overall, when the Gaels face Monmouth at 7 p.m. on Monday.

"We want to win the championship, no matter who we play against," said senior forward Aaron Rountree. "If it were Fairfield, it would still be exciting. It's the MAAC Championship, it's a chance to go to the dance. It doesn't really matter."

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