Monday, March 5, 2018

Iona keeps championship streak game alive with 14-point comeback to down Saint Peter's in MAAC tourney semis

Schadrac Casimir reprised his MAAC Tournament surge, scoring 24 points as Iona survived Saint Peter's upset bid to reach conference championship game for sixth straight season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

ALBANY, NY -- Trailing by 14 points with just over 15 minutes to play, Tim Cluess rallied his troops, mentioning that they had been down this road before and highlighting the need to stay positive.

An 11-0 run, routine for Iona basketball over the years, set the wheels in motion for yet another rally to return the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's most prolific postseason team to its commonly occupied ground.

After a first half against upset-minded Saint Peter's that looked like the death knell for the Gaels' chances of a three-peat in the MAAC Tournament, Iona found its niche by shooting 64 percent from the floor after halftime and connecting on six of nine three-point field goals down the stretch, ending the Peacocks' season with a gritty 65-62 victory in the semifinal round at the Times Union Center.

"We talked about that," Cluess said of having trailed Saint Peter's in the semifinals last season as well, before Jordan Washington keyed a run early in the second half to vault the Gaels into the lead and over the finish line. "We were kind of in the same position and we weren't playing well, and I talked about guys off the bench last year that came in and lit our fire. Today, it was the same thing."

"When you make some shots, things change a little bit, and I think our guys picked up their energy in the second half. I thought we were a little flat in the first half, but at halftime, we talked about how we were in this situation before and we always fought back. We knew we had another fight left in us, and our guys went out there and really did a tremendous job."

Iona (19-13) is now locked into its sixth consecutive MAAC championship game, and seventh in eight years under Cluess, and will face Fairfield Monday night with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line after the Stags extended their winning streak to seven with a victory over Quinnipiac in the other semifinal on Sunday. But following a 10-0 Saint Peter's run to end the first half, a stretch that coincided with the Gaels being held without a field goal for over eight minutes before Roland Griffin stopped the bleeding 104 seconds into the second half, it looked as though the Peacocks, the first No. 9 seed to reach the semifinals in conference history after upsetting top seed Rider on Friday, were on the verge of adding another victim to their running tally. A Mamadou Ndiaye three-pointer with 15:28 remaining in regulation gave Saint Peter's (14-18) a 39-25 advantage that looked insurmountable at that juncture.

Enter Schadrac Casimir.

The redshirt junior, back at the explosive form that made him a highlight of every team's scouting report as a freshman before three hip surgeries curtailed his progress, sparked Iona's outburst with a three of his own following Ndiaye's splash, drilling one more for good measure during the aforementioned run of 11 straight points as the Gaels drew within three points after just two minutes and 28 seconds.

"The run that we did make in the second half came off our defensive energy," said Casimir, who led all scorers with 24 points. "A lot of guys came off the bench that weren't playing a lot came and gave us energy. We got charges and steals, and it led to open baskets. Me, personally, I got a couple of steals, a couple of deflections, and my confidence and my adrenaline started running."

Saint Peter's would stretch their lead back to seven points shortly thereafter, but with the Gaels' freight train already revving up on the tracks, it was merely a delay of the inevitable. On several occasions, Iona pulled back within one possession as the Peacocks fought valiantly to hold serve until Casimir's jumper with 2:26 to play broke a 56-all tie and put the defending champions in front to stay as Saint Peter's point guard Davauhnte Turner; an 80 percent free throw shooter, missed three in a row at the line after being fouled behind the arc with 1:52 on the clock. A three-pointer by E.J. Crawford, whose basket in overtime against Siena in last year's championship game ultimately enabled the Gaels to repeat, was the de facto dagger about a half-minute later.

"He lives for those moments, let me tell you that," Cluess said of Crawford's flair for the dramatic.

The Peacocks had one last chance after Turner atoned for his key letdown at the foul line by draining a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left in regulation to pull within one. Following two foul shots from Crawford, a held ball with the possession arrow in Saint Peter's favor brought on a potential game-tying possession. However, Nick Griffin's attempt fell off the rim and Quinn Taylor's chance at a prayer of his own was denied by Casimir, who came away with a steal to run out the clock and bring Iona back to the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament.

"We truly believed in our heart that it was our year," John Dunne said of the Peacocks' game effort. "We felt good about ourselves, but at the end of the day, those guys made a lot of shots when they needed to. They made more shots than we did."

With the dust having settled, Iona now shifts its attention to becoming just the third program in MAAC history to win three consecutive conference championships, a feat they can accomplish by defeating Fairfield, a team against whom they split the regular season series.

"I think the more you play in a situation, the more comfortable you get with it," said Cluess, who improved to 18-4 all-time in MAAC tournament games, and 10-1 since the postseason returned to Albany in 2015. "Our guys have not only been in the tournament, but they've had some runs in the tournament. I think they play it like it's a regular game, and they're not thinking about the bigger picture, they're thinking about the next possession. I think that definitely helped us tonight. We worried about one possession at a time."

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