Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Iona displays will of a champion in MAAC championship thriller

By Norman Rose (@ECoastBias)

ALBANY, NY -- Whew.

Like Jordan Washington going to the free throw line late in overtime, I need to wipe some sweat off before I tell you about what went down in Albany Monday night to give Iona the MAAC Tournament Championship, and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with an 87-86 overtime win.

There are overtime games where one team comes on late. This wasn't that. This was a high-level championship game from the outset, both teams finding their advantage and then turning the action over to players to make plays.

"I'm really proud of our guys," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "Great win against a team that played their butts off on their home court. It was a terrific game, I think everyone enjoyed it whether they liked the outcome or not. One more possession for them, it could have ended the other way."

First, it was the Siena attack, owning the interior with strength, grabbing offensive rebounds and supplementing shots at the rim with threes to build a seven-point lead. Jordan Washington alone was ready to answer early, but when Nico Clareth hit that first three-pointer, obviously, the game was Siena's to win.

Until it was not.

An Iona 17-1 run, powered by some solid play on both ends by Washington and Taylor Bessick and a shared scoring effort, gave the Gaels their first lead and an insurmountable eight-point lead.

Until it was not.

A 9-0 run got the Saint faithful, draped in yellow t-shirts and filling the lower bowl, back to full excitement. The Saints held Iona without a field goal over the last 11 minutes of the first half. Up 37-35, the Saints' better effort would mean they were on their way to a surprise NCAA Tournament berth.

Until they were not.

The teams went back and forth in the second half until Iona peeled off an 8-0 run. Then Siena had an 11-0 run. And the crowd was on their feet.

"The [crowd] helped bring us back in the second half," said forward Javion Ogunyemi, from nearby Troy. "They were really energized and they helped bring us back in the game."

For a little while. But Deyshonee Much gave Iona another lead. Then it went back and forth, as Marquis Wright answered with a trey with just over two minutes left. But neither team could deliver the knockout shot, with Rickey McGill missing a hero shot off the dribble with six seconds left, sending the game into overtime. In the extra session, each team could not miss, and Washington scored the last eight of his 21 points, a machine in the post and at the line; focused, determined.

"Coach said keep posting," said Washington after the game, "and he'd keep running plays and I did what I had to do."

Siena kept tying the game, until Clareth's three-pointer went wide left. Iona played excellent defense, and Wright couldn't get into the paint. And the ball went to Nico, who didn't have any heroics left outside of his first made shot.

"We double teamed Washington, and he made a couple," said Siena coach Jimmy Patsos. "He made all his free throws in front of our crowd. They answered the bell. Life's a funny thing, sometimes you just don't get that one bounce."

"We fought," said Brent Bisping in what is likely his final game for Siena. "We didn't quit. I think everyone gave us everything they had tonight."

The feel of Madness was alive in downtown Albany. No, it wasn't a neutral site. But this arena had been popping with drama all the way through the first half, second half, and overtime in an 87-86 game.

Cluess was happy with the result in the environment.

 "I said, 'if we can win in this environment,'" he said, "this will be one that you'll remember forever. It was a great game, and that's the way championship games should be. An overtime game, on the road, with seven or eight thousand screaming against you."

And now, Iona waits to see where in they will travel for the NCAA Tournament as the MAAC representative - likely as a 14 or 15 seed.

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