Sunday, December 4, 2016

Iona's four-game win streak halted by Niagara in home opener

Matt Scott's 20 points led all scorers as Niagara recorded major upset to conclude opening weekend of MAAC play, dominating Iona on the road in a 74-58 win. (Photo by the Niagara Gazette)

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Although it does not usually get as much credit due to the attention-grabbing, high-octane offensive system employed by Tim Cluess, Iona's head coach has always stressed the importance of defensive execution.

For a period of time, it manifested itself in the Gaels' home opener, but ultimately not enough as Iona fell to Niagara; a team picked to finish last of eleven in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason poll, by the final of 74-58 at the Hynes Athletics Center.

The 58 points represent the lowest point total for the Gaels (4-3, 1-1 MAAC) at home in Cluess' seven-year tenure, and are tied with last season's opener at Valparaiso for the second-lowest output since Cluess assumed the reins in 2010, besting only the 57 points registered against Saint Peter's in the 2011 MAAC championship game.

"It's mostly our fault," said forward Taylor Bessick, whose 11 rebounds were a game-high. "We weren't prepared. We were taking it lightly when we should have been more focused and aggressive on defense."

After a 13-0 run in the early stages of the second half trimmed Iona's 17-point deficit to four with 13:35 remaining in regulation, the Gaels traded baskets with Niagara (2-6, 1-1 MAAC) for several minutes and stayed within earshot at the midway point of the final stanza. However, with the Purple Eagles still leading by a 54-48 margin, the visitors proceeded to rip off an 11-0 run that effectively closed out the game and provided head coach Chris Casey with arguably the biggest win of his career.

"We couldn't put the ball in the basket," Jon Severe assessed, lamenting an offensive effort that was atypical of Iona's uptempo style; as the Gaels shot only 34 percent (19-for-56) from the floor, including an anemic 7-for-26 showing from three-point range. "The defense was terrible. We dug ourselves a hole and we couldn't come out of it. It was a bad game for everybody."

Matt Scott led Niagara and all scorers with 20 points in the winning effort, and point guard Kahlil Dukes chipped in with 17 points and five assists against no turnovers. On the Gaels' end of the box score, Jordan Washington tallied 13 points and six rebounds, while Severe and EJ Crawford recorded a dozen points apiece.

Returning to familiar confines on the heels of a Great Alaska Shootout championship and a convincing road victory against Saint Peter's to open MAAC play, the Gaels seemed to rush their offense in the opening minutes before settling down for stretches, something their leader addressed following the game.

"I thought our effort level was not where it needed to be, in all fairness," Cluess bluntly stated. "I thought early in the game, we took contested shots too quickly, and it almost became a pattern. We took them and other guys got stationary out there, and it looked like 'I want to get mine right now.' I don't think we moved the ball particularly well and Niagara moved it really well, found the open guy and took advantage of it."

Iona continues a span of three games in seven days this Wednesday, heading across the Hudson River to take on Fairleigh Dickinson, but as stated by both players and coach following tonight's shocking defeat, much work remains to be completed.

"The reality is this: We're a small, tough team when we shoot well," said Cluess. "When we don't shoot well, we're a small team, and they took advantage of us being a small team today. We didn't battle as that small team. If we played like we defended Saint Peter's the other night, it would have been a game down to the wire."

"I think sometimes when you come home, guys think 'oh, it's at Iona, we're going to win because Iona always wins here,'" he elaborated. "This group of guys has not earned that. This is their first time playing together on an Iona home court and they have to realize the guys that came before them paid a price, and that's why we're so good here. These guys have to pay a price on a daily basis, and I think that's something; growth-wise, that's going to take a while."

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