Iona players and cheerleaders signify third straight MAAC title after Gaels defeated Fairfield to clinch latest NCAA Tournament appearance. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
ALBANY, NY -- Iona endured a subpar shooting night to advance in its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament opener.
They survived a close call less than 24 hours later, coming back from a 14-point deficit to return to the championship stage on which they have become customary figures.
Finally, they handled business appropriately for an historic coronation.
Led by a career-high 29 points from Roland Griffin and 20 from tournament MVP Zach Lewis, the Gaels became just the third school in MAAC history to win three consecutive conference tournaments, inscribing their name into the record books alongside La Salle and Siena with an 83-71 victory over Fairfield to earn a coveted automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
"It's amazing," junior guard Schadrac Casimir said moments before he and his teammates commemorated the Gaels' 11th all-time MAAC championship by symbolically cutting the Times Union Center nets. "We had an up-and-down, roller-coaster season, but when we came in here on Friday, we came in with one thing on our minds, and we came together."
"Where they came from at different moments in the season to get to where they did, it's all about their hard work and heart," head coach Tim Cluess added, heaping praise upon the players that won him a fourth conference title in his eight-year tenure. "I'm really proud of these guys and what they've accomplished."
Reaching their latest date with destiny after performances against Manhattan and Saint Peter's that were atypical of what Iona basketball has represented in recent seasons, the Gaels (20-13) were much more like their normal selves Monday night, attacking the basket at will against a smaller Fairfield lineup and utilizing the three-point shot as a dagger when necessary. The first half was closer than some may have anticipated, though, as the Stags (17-16) recovered from an early 10-5 deficit to push the pace as senior and all-time leading scorer Tyler Nelson willed them into the lead with 17 of his team-high 25 points coming in the opening stanza.
Fairfield had a 35-32 advantage with just over four minutes to play, but the game turned shortly thereafter. Following an old-fashioned three-point play by TK Edogi to tie the score at 35-all, Nelson picked up his second personal foul and took a seat on the bench. Unfortunately for the Stags, their leader's exit coincided with giving up an 18-3 run that bridged the end of the first half with the beginning of the second, and turned a three-point lead into a 13-point Iona advantage that proved to be insurmountable.
"We were down 14 yesterday and we just talked about how we've never given up," said Cluess. "We haven't always played well, but we've competed, and that's all we asked of them -- compete, compete, compete -- and they did it. It's amazing to me."
The Gaels' lead swelled as large as 20 points before Fairfield slowly whittled away down the stretch, only to be done in by a combination of lackluster free throw shooting, a 44-22 deficit in the paint, and tired legs from playing their fourth game in five days as Lewis fittingly closed the game with a pair of free throws to seal the final margin of victory and bring his career -- which started in 2013 at MAAC rival Canisius -- full circle.
"Honestly, it's crazy," Lewis said of the emotions involved in coming to Iona and winning a championship. "I remember as a freshman going up against A.J. English, Sean Armand, everybody. To have this moment, it's crazy, it's amazing."
Iona now awaits its NCAA Tournament fate on Selection Sunday, but in the interim, basks in the glow of a victory that seemed improbable when they arrived in Albany, but after each of the top three seeds being eliminated in the quarterfinals, is now a shiny, golden reality.
"I think they just all came together and they all realized they were good enough to win," Cluess said. "I think the players started holding themselves responsible for how they practiced, for how they spent their time away from basketball, and more importantly, when they were on the court. Guys held themselves to a higher standard, and we're fortunate that because of that, we were fortunate enough to find a win."