Zach Lewis' 23 points led Iona to seventh straight win over Manhattan, powering Gaels back to MAAC Tournament semifinals. (Photo by The Journal News)
ALBANY, NY -- Amid all the chaos that occurred inside the Times Union Center in the 24 hours prior to the last of Saturday night's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinal matchups, the defending champions restored order.
Following the exits of Rider, Canisius, and Niagara -- the first time since 2002 in which each of the top three seeds were eliminated before the semifinal round -- Iona rediscovered its familiar groove under the tournament backdrop, easily defeating archrival Manhattan by the final of 72-60 to preserve the program's streak of being among the last four standing in every year of head coach Tim Cluess' tenure.
"I thought our guys really defended and played with a lot of heart tonight," Cluess said as the Gaels improved to 9-1 since the MAAC returned its postseason tournament to Albany, and set up a meeting with Saint Peter's with a spot in Monday's championship game on the line. "We found a way to win when there wasn't a high number of threes and a great shooting night. We battled, we competed, we made them work for everything, and that's the way you have to win in tournament time."
Iona (18-13) led for nearly 37 minutes in earning their seventh straight win over Manhattan, and eighth in the last nine meetings between the two, taking the lead on a Schadrac Casimir layup with just over three minutes gone by and never relinquishing it. An 11-2 run in the latter part of the first half turned a two-point lead into a more comfortable 11-point margin before the Jaspers (14-17) counterpunched their adversary with a pair of late baskets to go into the locker room at halftime trailing by just six points, at 35-29.
The two teams traded blows for the first several minutes out of the intermission, before a 10-2 Iona spurt opened up the largest lead of the night, a 14-point cushion with 13:03 remaining. Manhattan would draw no closer than six points the rest of the way, as every time it appeared a run was coming, the Gaels shut the door with a responding salvo of their own.
"It was frustrating, because we couldn't make the plays we needed to down the stretch," Steve Masiello conceded as his senior-laden team suffered its third straight early tournament exit since repeating as MAAC champions in 2015. "We couldn't make the plays to get it to a two or three-possession game. It's frustrating when you have it on your terms and you want to play the game the way you want to play it, and then you can't capitalize on that. Give Iona credit. Tim does a terrific job. There's a reason why they're the back-to-back champions. I have nothing but all the respect in the world for them."
With each of the top three seeds no longer in the picture, Iona is now viewed as the heavy favorite to become just the third MAAC program to win three straight conference championships, joining La Salle and Siena in an exclusive fraternity. But while the odds may be stacked in their favor, the wise man piloting the Gaels knows better than to bank on mathematical probabilities.
"I don't put any credence into the seed of teams when you're in the playoffs," a candid Cluess stated. "Nobody wants to go home, everybody's prepared and adds some new wrinkles to what they do. You see it all the time where teams that got beat in the regular year find a way to win in the playoffs. We've been in that position and we've done it, so we have to look at every opponent as a really good opponent, that they're better than us and we have to find a way to be better than them."