Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Iona repeats as MAAC champs in captivating OT final over Siena

E.J. Crawford's drive in final minute of overtime proved to be championship-winning moment as Iona successfully defended MAAC crown with overtime win on Siena's home floor. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

ALBANY, NY -- For all the talk about advantages in this year's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, the one that was overlooked proved to be the greatest of all.

Much was made of Siena and hosting the tournament at the same Times Union Center venue in which they play their entire regular season home schedule. Lost in the shuffle was their Iona opponent having won seven straight against the Saints in their home venue and owning an 8-0 lifetime conference tournament record versus the host team, not to mention being the defending league champions.

And after enduring a hostile environment, the champions got to take their trophy back to New Rochelle.

Freshman E.J. Crawford's driving layup with 28 seconds remaining in overtime gave Iona a lead it would never relinquish after a thrilling battle that saw neither side give an inch for 45 minutes, and senior Jordan Washington's two free throws in the waning moments of the extra session iced the Gaels' second straight MAAC championship and conference-record tenth overall, narrowly eclipsing fourth-seeded Siena by the final of 87-86 to earn the program's fourth NCAA Tournament berth in head coach Tim Cluess' seven-year tenure.

"I'm really happy for them because they stuck together and fought through everything," a proud Cluess remarked after Iona (22-12) repeated as conference champions for the third time in program history and first since turning the back-to-back trick in 2000 and 2001 under Jeff Ruland. "For them, it's life lessons, and that's more important. If they work hard, good things can happen."

Before a crowd of 7,608, many of whom were clad in Siena green and gold, the Gaels needed every second of their 45-minute war to emerge victorious over the scrappy Saints, who had the fans and the momentum on their side from a come-from-behind victory over regular season champion and tournament favorite Monmouth just 24 hours prior. Iona shot 53 percent from the floor after halftime, but it still came down to the final seconds of an affair that featured 16 ties and neither team leading by more than nine points at any time.

Siena (17-17) struck first and put the crowd in their back pocket early, staking themselves out to an eight-point lead in the opening minutes of the first half before a 17-1 Iona run fueled by the Gaels' vaunted transition game put the third-seeded reigning titleholders ahead by a 32-24 margin with just over six minutes before the intermission. The Saints would respond with a 13-3 spurt to take a 37-35 lead into the locker room, but quickly gave up a 13-3 outburst shortly after the second half began.

Iona built a 57-48 cushion with 11:56 remaining in regulation, but a stretch of 11 unanswered points that started with a Brett Bisping three-pointer and ended with a trifecta from senior point guard Marquis Wright, swung the pendulum back into the Saints' hands over three minutes later. In the latest run that ensued, the Gaels scored 10 of the next 13 points to go up 67-62, seizing the two-possession initiative after a breakaway dunk by Deyshonee Much with 4:46 on the clock.

But the drama was only just beginning.

Siena scored six of the next seven to pull even at 68-all with just over three minutes to go before a Much three gave Iona a narrow lead. The Saints received a lucky break when a loose ball that seemed ticketed for the Gaels found its way into the hands of Bisping, who then fed Wright for an uncontested three on the right arc to knot the score at 71 apiece. Free throws by Much and Bisping provided the 73-73 end of regulation score after Rickey McGill missed a chance to win at the horn when his NBA-range triple attempt was just a little too strong.

In the extra five minutes, Washington took over, scoring eight of Iona's final 12 points while putting the team on his back. His layup 27 seconds after the tip to begin overtime started the proceedings, then a scoop layup to regain the lead following Javion Ogunyemi's putback of a missed three by Wright tipped the scales in the Gaels' favor again. Ogunyemi answered, but was countered with a Much layup to put Iona ahead 81-79 with 1:48 remaining.Free throws by Bisping and Washington kept the Iona advantage at two points before Wright's driving layup tied the score for a final time before Crawford's go-ahead basket. 

"He was under control the whole time," Cluess said of Crawford's composure on what turned out to be the game-winning possession. "He didn't force something, he found a little gap and he had the guts to go in and make the big play."

Trailing by two yet again with a chance to hold for the last shot, Wright calmly waited to make his move before kicking it out to an open Clareth at the top of the key. But the sophomore could not recapture his magical form from Sunday's win over Monmouth, misfiring on a potential go-ahead three. Washington came down with the rebound and sealed the game at the foul line. Wright hit a three from just over half court at the buzzer, but it was inconsequential in the end.

"My coach said to keep playing hard, and that's what I did," said Washington, whose 21 points and 10 rebounds earned him Most Valuable Player honors. "I kept posting, he kept running plays for me, and I did what I had to do."

"I'm still emotional right now," he admitted in the Gaels' postgame press conference. "I'm just happy that everyone on this team fought hard to the end. We don't stop until it hits double zero."

All five Iona starters posted double-figure scoring totals, as Much added 18 points, with McGill tallying 14, Crawford accounting for 12 and Schadrac Casimir recording 10 points. For Siena, Wright's final collegiate game ended in a 29-point masterpiece, with Bisping (16 points, 14 rebounds) and Ogunyemi (16 points, 10 rebounds) closing their careers with double-doubles as the Saints fell one point short of what would have been a shocking and unexpected championship celebration.

While Siena is likely finished for the year, barring a change of heart by school officials about competing in the postseason, the Gaels will go dancing once again, reaching deep to pull out a victory that, given the circumstances, will resonate for a number of reasons.

"I honestly think that makes it sweeter," said Cluess of having to go through overtime to complete Iona's title defense. "We talked about that before the game. We said if we can win in this environment, this would be one you remember forever."

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