Talented Iona can’t quite break through
It's been a tough week for the Iona Gaels.
Just one night after Carmelo Anthony wiped Iona alum Richie Guerin from the New York Knicks' record books, the Gaels faced off against the Niagara Purple Eagles Thursday night in Niagara Falls, with a share of first place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference on the line.
Iona lost, 93-90, the latest instance of them coming close to a breakthrough win, only to fall short.
Then Iona compounded this with a 77-74 loss to Canisius Saturday.
This pattern has manifested itself repeatedly during coach Tim Cluess' two-plus seasons with the Gaels. It is to his credit that he is bringing so much talent to the New Rochelle, N.Y. school, which has only had intermittent basketball success. But they've yet to take full advantage of it.
Niagara entered the contest at 9-1 in the M.A.A.C., while Iona was 8-2. But the Gaels had an argument that they were the superior team. Not only had Iona defeated Niagara earlier this season, the Purple Eagles' lone conference loss this year, but Iona has gotten stronger as the season has gone along.
The Gaels lost point guard Scott Machado from last season's team (Machado has played for the Houston Rockets this season), but returned dynamic scoring guard and Arizona transfer MoMo Jones, along with shooter Sean Armand, who is converting nearly 43 percent of his three pointers.
Once David Laury, a 6'8" interior presence and basketball nomad, became eligible and promptly started averaging a double-double, it wasn't clear that Iona would lose another game all season.
Then came an inexplicably poor shooting performance in a 67-62 loss to Rider on January 20. And with an R.P.I. hovering around 100, well below what it would take to earn an at-large bid, the path to the N.C.A.A. tournament for the Gaels clearly runs through winning the M.A.A.C. automatic bid.
Getting that top seed in the conference tournament which determines the automatic bid is kind of a big deal, but it's not everything. Unlike many other mid-major conferences, the top seed doesn't get to host the conference tournament. But the easiest possible road to the bid is obviously desirable.
Iona stood mere seconds away from a first-place tie in the conference; after Saturday's loss, the Gaels are in a three-way tie for second, just a game out of fifth place.
Ultimately, Iona will probably need to go through Niagara, a strong team in its own right, with Anthony Mason's son Antoine and Juan'ya Green forming a potent sophomore backcourt.
On Niagara's home court, Iona appeared poised to do that. Laury had 24 points and 16 rebounds. Jones added 23. And in a departure from last season, the Gaels were poised to win despite shooting just 30 percent from three, displaying a greater depth to their offensive attack. The Gaels led 74-61 with six minutes to go, and despite a Niagara comeback, still led 81-76 with the ball and 32.3 seconds to go.
And then, improbably, it all came apart. Armand, a good free throw shooter, missed two free throws, the first badly. Then Iona fouled Green, who made two free throws to make it a one-possession game with 23.3 seconds left. Armand's inbounds pass was then stolen by Green, and Niagara got four chances at the game-tying three, two each from Mason and Green. Green buried the fourth to tie the game and send it into overtime. Five minutes later, Green buried the game-winning three to win it for Niagara.
The overtime was closely contested. But this game had no business going into overtime.
That Iona didn't win a game it should have, by all rights, has become a bit of a recent theme. Machado's Iona team made the N.C.A.A. tournament last season, thanks to a strong enough non-conference schedule that their overall R.P.I. was 40. But the automatic bid the Gaels were expected to earn was derailed in an 85-75 upset loss to Fairfield during last season's M.A.A.C. tournament, with some writing their basketball obituary following the game.
So what did Iona do, given a second chance from the tournament selection committee? Well, they came out against B.Y.U. and dominated, taking a 55-31 lead late in the first half. And just as suddenly, they completely collapsed, blowing that lead and falling, 78-72.
The Gaels are quite possibly the most talented team in the New York metro area this year, a rare claim to be made about a M.A.A.C. team in a land populated with Big East giants.
But if they're going to take advantage of that talent, they need to play better, as a team, when it counts.