Je'lon Hornbeak led all scorers with 25 points as Monmouth closed regular season by sweeping Iona, entering MAAC Tournament with 16-game win streak. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Last March, Monmouth saw its NCAA Tournament aspirations end with A.J. English securing a loose ball in the final seconds to send Iona into the field of 68 and relegate the Hawks to the National Invitation Tournament.
Since then, the 79-76 loss has burned in the minds of the Hawks, and continued to do so even after a convincing victory last month in West Long Branch. In the regular season finale for both teams, Monmouth sought an additional measure of retribution, and held on just long enough to gain one.
Je'lon Hornbeak's 25 points led all scorers as Monmouth overcame a slow start to grind the Gaels out and earn a 79-73 road victory at a sold-out Hynes Athletics Center, in the process becoming the first team to sweep a regular-season series from head coach Tim Cluess in his seven-year tenure on the bench.
"Three years ago, they were beating the skin off of us," head coach King Rice remarked as the Hawks (26-5, 18-2 MAAC) took care of business one last time in their final tuneup before the conference tournament, which begins for Monmouth on Friday night in Albany, where they will face either Quinnipiac or Niagara. "I remember playing them, and their kids were always respectful, but we weren't up to their level."
"We're an older group now, and senior-laden teams usually play well," he elaborated. "We have a lot of seniors, a lot of older guys. We are a very confident group. We wanted to win the regular season after losing those first two (conference games), but now a new season starts. You have to ramp up a lot more."
The Hawks came out somewhat flat at the start, as Iona (19-12, 12-8 MAAC) was able to feel out the opening minutes a little easier than their counterparts, opening up a 12-5 lead through the first seven minutes. But Monmouth responded with a 9-1 run to get right back into the game, and kept the margin at one possession for almost the duration of the opening stanza, going to the locker room with a 35-32 lead when Austin Tilghman drained a three-pointer from the left arc just before the buzzer sounded.
Monmouth scored the first four points after the intermission to open a seven-point lead, but the Gaels gradually stormed back within earshot. Iona never led in the second half, they did eventually tie the score at 61 apiece on a Sam Cassell Jr. layup with 6:56 remaining in regulation. But just as he did in the MAAC championship game last March, Josh James stepped up to provide a veteran answer.
Playing within shouting distance of his hometown, the Greenburgh native calmly buried a three in the right corner on the ensuing possession to give the Hawks the lead for good, then stripped Rickey McGill in the open floor finished himself for the lay-in to put Monmouth ahead by five. An E.J. Crawford triple narrowed the gap to two, but a 9-3 Monmouth spurt slammed the door on any potential Iona comeback.
With the win, Monmouth carries a 16-game win streak; the second-longest in the nation, into the Times Union Center for the final step in its quest for destiny. But when asked if the team is firing on all cylinders, the Hawks' leader and likely MAAC Player of the Year was brutally honest in his assessment.
"Absolutely not," said Justin Robinson, who fought his way to 16 points in the victory. "We've got a lot of work to do. We got a tough win, but nobody played the way they're capable of through the whole entire stretch of the game. We had defensive lapses, we had offensive lapses, little small breakdowns here and there, so in order for us to win this next game coming up on Friday night, we're going to have to cut those out."
Regardless, a win is a win, and Rice attributed Iona's formidable nature as a major piece behind heading back to West Long Branch victorious.
"We didn't play our best because Iona made us not play our best," he stated. "That's a big-time win because they made us play differently and we were able to get it done down the stretch. Iona made us be off tonight. Hopefully if we have to play them again, we'll play better the next time."