NEW ROCHELLE—Tim Cluess is a first-year coach. This was the fourth game of the season. So it was surprising to hear him say this after Iona’s 81-77 win against Richmond last Thursday: “We needed [this win] for the kids’ psyche. My concern was that if we came in here and laid an egg, I could lose them this early in the year. They’d say, ‘We worked really hard, Coach, and we still didn’t win.’”
He was completely serious, which almost makes you wonder, just for a moment, whether he was joking when he laughed and said, “I figured if we lost this one I’d have to see if I was still working here come Monday.”
It was no secret that it was a critical win for Iona, even though it likely didn’t have postseason implications for the Gaels. The 0-3 start at the World Vision Classic in Cleveland was horrendous. Iona had late-game breakdowns against Kent State and Bryant, which posted a 1-29 record last season. The Gaels lost by a combined three points in those two games and shot 32/54 (59 percent) from the free throw line.
Many fans started to doubt Cluess, some of whom likely didn’t care for the hire to begin with. Cluess had coached—and won—a lot of games, but until Thursday he hadn’t won at the D1 level. Cluess still believed his style, his schemes, and this group of players could turn it around. “They worked so hard when we came back (from Cleveland),” he said. “After that road trip I said, ‘As beat up as we are, we’ve got to practice. We’re not going to get better unless we do that.’ Guys were hurting, but they didn’t complain; they worked their butts off. I knew they had it in them.”
They responded with an exhilarating double-overtime victory against a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year, returned the Atlantic-10 Player of the Year, and was picked to finished third in the conference this season.
Scott Machado led the way with a career-high 28 points to go along with six assists, five rebounds, and three steals. “As we keep learning the offense and trusting in it, we’re going to get better,” Machado said. “We have to buy into it.”
|Even in this photo you can tell Scott Machado is fast.|
Part of Cluess’ strategy against Richmond was to shorten his bench. Or, more specifically, limit the reserves’ minutes. Senior Rashon Dwight, who started 25 games last season and two in Cleveland (averaging 21 minutes per game), didn’t play against the Spiders. You’ve got to imagine he’ll be worked back into the rotation, but in what was essentially a must-win game, Cluess decided Thursday was not the time to let Dwight shake his 6-for-22 shooting slump.
Each of the five starters—Machado, Jermel Jenkins, Kyle Smyth, Michael Glover, and Alejo Rodriguez—logged at least 37 minutes; all but Smyth played at least 44. Nine Gaels saw action, but only guard Trinity Fields reached double-digit minutes. Others were simply used to give the starters a quick breather.
|These two big men, Alejo Rodriguez (under basket) and Michael Glover, were instrumental in Iona’s victory|
“Conditioning is what got us through the game—us working hard every day in practice,” Glover said. The Gaels also converted the important foul shots. Machado hit all four of his attempts in double-OT, the second putting his team ahead for good. “Coach emphasized free throws,” the junior said. “We needed to knock down our free throws down the stretch. That’s what messed us up in Cleveland.”
This one game doesn’t vindicate Cluess or this year’s Iona team, just as the first three didn’t seal their fate. But Cluess’ postgame sigh of relief could be heard in Mount Vernon.