In MAAC championship game for fifth time in his six years, Tim Cluess is treating tonight's clash with Monmouth no different from any other game on Iona's schedule. (Photo courtesy of Brian Beyrer via Iona College Athletics)
Having been on this stage four times before and only winning once, it would not be unusual to suggest that the frustration of coming up short so many times would wear on Tim Cluess and Iona entering their latest MAAC championship game.
But the Gaels are not your typical mid-major program, and they come into tonight's meeting with Monmouth (7 p.m., ESPN) with one objective in mind other than cutting down the nets at the Times Union Center: To just play Iona basketball.
"I know we say it a lot like it's some kind of mythical thing, but we just come out and play our system and do what we do," said senior forward Aaron Rountree after the Gaels' morning shootaround. "I think the approach has been the same as all the other games."
"I think any time you lose, you always remember the losses more than you remember the wins," Cluess said. "It makes you want to work harder and continue to strive for good things. All we're doing by working harder every day is giving ourselves a chance."
The prior two games between Iona and Monmouth produced polar opposites of the spectrum for results. In the first encounter on January 15, the Hawks torched the nets at the Hynes Athletics Center with an eye-popping second-half shooting display en route to a 110-102 victory that solidifies their status among the MAAC's upper echelon. In the rematch on February 19 at a sold-out Multipurpose Activity Center, A.J. English put on a show in front of a building record crowd of 4,522 patrons, hitting one clutch three-pointer after another in a 31-point tour de force as the Gaels used his offense and stout defense to leave West Long Branch with a convincing 83-67 decision.
"Defense wins championships," A.J. English said when asked what he would take out of the regular season contests against Monmouth. "That's what's going to prepare you to win. At the end of the day, we want to continue to play good defense."
Iona's defensive efforts, which have stepped up considerably since an 81-78 home loss to Siena on February 13, continue to be taken for granted, even though those exploits have been at the forefront of what has propelled the Gaels to this stage.
"I definitely think that helped us," Rountree said with regard toward Iona's defense. "That made a huge difference. I think a lot of people just expected Iona to try and outscore you, but I think the last three weeks or so, we've been (at the) top of the conference in defense as well, so I think that's been big for us."
Win or lose, Iona's continuity remains a large part of what brought the Gaels to this stage, and even if Cluess is not the one climbing the ladder after the final buzzer, he is still appreciative of the opportunity.
"Everybody would love to win," he conceded. "Every guy on this team, I'd love to win it for them, for the school, for the fans, because we have the best of everything in those situations. We're going to give it our best shot tonight. We've just got to go out there and play with as much energy as we can. I'm proud of them just for how hard they've worked. I love these guys regardless."