Gael Nation stands victorious after scoring 100-88 win over Sideline Cancer in opening round of The Basketball Tournament, where Iona alumni are attempting to win $2 million grand prize. (Photo by Basketball Society)
BROOKLYN -- To commemorate the Northeast Regional rounds of The Basketball Tournament, each of the participating teams was represented by a banner bearing their respective team logo on the wall of the Steinberg Wellness Center.
Each, that is, except one.
Gael Nation, a team of Iona alumni in a second go-round at TBT and its $2 million, winner-take-all grand prize, was not present among the banners Friday night, an innocuous slight that was noticeably rectified prior to Saturday's action. But while the Gael legends were invisible to the naked eye 24 hours prior to taking the floor, they left no doubt of their formidable presence in the field once present and accounted for, employing the high-octane style they learned under Tim Cluess and carrying it to a 100-88 victory over Sideline Cancer on the campus of Long Island University, setting up a second-round battle with Armored Athlete Sunday afternoon.
"We had the same philosophy every year at Iona," Sean Armand said of the familiarity with one another, a camaraderie that served as the driving force behind the Brooklyn native's team-leading 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting. "When we got the team together, it was easy to gel, so when we got back on the court, it was like we were back at Iona. Everyone's a little more experienced and a little bit better now, so it was kind of easy."
"We have a bunch of guys that, individually, are really good," head coach Colin Curtin added. "They're completely bought in, and I thought that was the reason why we scored so many points."
In standard Iona fashion, the first quarter yielded a slow start as Gael Nation struggled to find a second scorer early alongside former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year David Laury, who set the tone in the opening minutes en route to an 18-point effort. Toward the end of the stanza, Armand galvanized his teammates, draining one of his four three-pointers and then coming back with a jumper off a turnover moments before the buzzer. The second quarter was equally as close as Sideline Cancer fought off a 10-2 Gael Nation run and regained the lead, but lost it for good on A.J. English's straightaway triple in the final seconds of the half, which sent Gael Nation to the locker room with a 49-47 cushion that was also forged by the stout defense of Aaron Rountree, the X-factor behind Iona's first of three consecutive MAAC championships in 2016.
"It's really important," said English of Rountree's understated impact. "Coach was saying that with these teams, the main scorers weren't the ones that went through in the tournament. But that's what Aaron does, and that's what I was telling Coach -- he wasn't at the first practice -- I told him he would love him because he does all the things that won't show up on the stat sheet -- keeping extra balls alive, running the floor, bringing energy -- whether he's shooting or not."
An explosion in the third quarter, keyed by Gael Nation's fast break and ball control in a period where the team committed only two turnovers, effectively decided the game as the Iona alumni turned a two-point advantage into one that ballooned to 13 points to put the game out of reach. The lead stood at 14 when the Elam ending -- which shuts off the game clock following the first dead ball with under four minutes to play, and then adds seven points to the leading team's score to create a game-deciding target -- was enacted. A baseline layup from English was the de facto game-clinching shot for Gael Nation, who placed five players in double figures amid a 55 percent shooting display.
"We've got guys that can do everything, and I think that's important in a tournament like this," Steve Burtt, Jr., the elder statesman on the roster, remarked after scoring 19 points. "We've got guys that can score, guys that can defend, guys that can do the little things -- the 50-50 balls, the hustle plays -- we can beat you in the post, we can beat you on the pick-and-roll. We've got a really special team, and as long as we lock in and work together, the sky's the limit for us."