Roland Griffin led Iona with 21 points in Gaels' loss to Duke Thursday. (Photo by The Journal News)
Tim Cluess' pregame message to his Iona team was to not die wondering whether the Gaels could beat Duke, urging his players to go out and leave everything on the floor for 40 minutes.
The three-time defending Metro Atlantic Conference champions fought valiantly, particularly in the first half, but the No. 2-seed Blue Devils were ultimately too much for Iona to handle as the Gaels fell in their Midwest Regional matchup, 89-67.
"They're one heck of a basketball team," head coach Tim Cluess conceded as Duke used a 16-4 run midway through the first half and then a 12-2 spurt to begin the second stanza to ultimately pull away and earn a second-round meeting with Rhode Island on Saturday in Pittsburgh. "We tried to throw a lot of things at them, and they responded in a different way."
Iona (20-14) matched their first-time foe in the early going, getting five quick points from Schadrac Casimir before the Blue Devils broke the game open for the first time with a 12-3 run to go up by nine points, all before the first media timeout of the game. However, the Gaels battled back when Roland Griffin -- whose 21 points were a team-high and only one point fewer than Marvin Bagley III's game-high of 22 -- provided a huge lift off the bench in an 11-2 stretch that tied the game at 19 apiece with 13:12 remaining in the first half.
Duke took advantage for good on the ensuing possession, as a Trevon Duval three-pointer sparked the game-changing swing in momentum that was compounded by Iona's inability to both handle the ball and get a stop as the Blue Devils opened a double-digit cushion.
"We thought the game was going good," said TK Edogi as he recounted Iona's start before Duke asserted itself increasingly as the first half drew to a close. "We just needed to get a couple more stops, and maybe the outcome of the game would have changed."
To the Gaels' credit, they continued to fight valiantly as the intermission approached, getting within 11 and threatening to go into the locker room within single digits, but the Blue Devils worked the clock in expert fashion on the final possession of the period, with Grayson Allen's three from the left wing beating the horn to send Duke into the locker room with a 53-39 lead that ultimately proved insurmountable as Iona was unable to keep up down the stretch.
"In a game like today, we have to shoot the lights out, and apparently, we didn't," Cluess said. "I'm proud of my guys' effort. They fought hard all year and I'm really proud of them for getting this opportunity."
Even in defeat, Iona acquitted itself well, as the Gaels rebounded from a late-season swoon to rediscover its stroke in the MAAC Tournament and enter its fifth taste of March Madness as a resurgent force with the potential to build on a budding dynasty next season, when Griffin, Casimir and Rickey McGill return to New Rochelle for their senior campaigns and a potential fourth straight conference championship.
"We have a shot to be very good again," Cluess intimated. "I do think our core is good, and I think we have some players sitting out this year that are really going to help us as well. We're constantly striving."
"I think we had eight new bodies that we were trying to work in, and guys didn't know each other at all, and I think by the end of the season, they took a lot of pride in their effort. These guys have some special bonds that will last a lifetime now. Our guys did a tremendous job getting where they did, so I'm really proud of them."