After Iona started the season at a tournament in Cleveland and lost all three games, the Gaels returned home to face Richmond, an NCAA Tournament team the previous year that had started 2-0 and was expected to compete for an Atlantic 10 title (it finished third but won the conference tournament).
“My concern was that if we came in here and laid an egg, I could lose them this early in the year,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess would say after the game, referring to his players. “They’d say, ‘We worked really hard, coach, and we still didn’t win.’”
Instead of losing the game and potentially their confidence, the Gaels picked up a quality nonconference win, overcoming a six-point deficit with less than a minute remaining and eventually winning in double-overtime. They used the momentum to rattle off seven straight victories and embark on a run that took them all the way to the MAAC championship game.
In the title game, Iona ran into St. Peter’s, a team committed to a defensive philosophy that was able to hold the Gaels to their lowest output of the season in a 62-57 victory.
But the ride to the finals in Bridgeport was an impressive one. Iona played a competitive game with Syracuse, losing by just six. When the Gaels beat Niagara on Jan. 21, they improved to 7-1 in the MAAC.
Iona then hit its only rough patch of the conference season, dropping four in a row—by margins of two, two, three (in OT), and four. The Gaels picked it up from there, posting another seven-game win streak to end the regular season, with most of the games decided by hefty margins. The final game of the regular season was a victory over No. 1 seed Fairfield, which cemented Iona as the hottest team in the MAAC heading into the conference tournament.
And just in case there were any doubts, Iona eliminated three-time defending champ Siena in the quarterfinals, 94-64. In the semis, the Gaels looked like a well-oiled offensive machine once again, beating Rider 83-59, before stalling against St. Peter’s.
The 22 wins are the most for the program since 2006, when it won 23 games, and Iona has a chance to add to that total in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). The Gaels play tomorrow night at Valparaiso. Future matchups are based on seeding, so Iona’s potential next opponent is unknown.
|Scott Machado, left, and Mike Glover, return next season. (Credit: Warren Rosenberg/ICGaels.com)
Looking ahead to next year, Iona loses just two seniors, Rashon Dwight and Alejo Rodriguez, though both were starters. Dwight, who averaged 8.5 points per game and led the team in steals, came on strong in the second half of the season. Rodriguez’s production was limited as he recovered from two offseason hip surgeries, but he was the second leading rebounder. The effort was there, but as Cluess pointed out after the title game, Rodriguez just didn’t seem to have the legs necessary to play three games in as many days.
Iona returns its two best players in First Team All-MAAC performers Scott Machado and Mike Glover. Machado is tied for the second in the country in assists as we head into the various postseason tournaments, while Glover posted 18 double-doubles and will likely be the frontrunner next season for MAAC Player of the Year.
They’ll both be seniors, as will guards Jermel Jenkins and Trinity Fields and versatile swingman Randy Dezouvre, giving the Gaels a nice senior core, which is often a component of conference championship teams, especially at the mid-major level. Kyle Smyth (third leading scorer at 10.1 per game) and Chris Pelcher (a 6’10 center who developed nicely this season and will take on an even greater role with the departure of Rodriguez) will be juniors. Sharpshooter Sean Armand returns, as does Jayon James, who missed most of the season due to injury.
Despite the hurt of falling just short of an NCAA Tournament bid, it was an extremely success first season for Cluess. Consider the average margin in Iona’s 11 losses was just 4.1 points, and only once did Iona lose by double digits this season, a 10-point loss during that rocky opening weekend. In other words, the Gaels were competitive in virtually every game.
There’s no reason to think Iona won’t be near the top of the MAAC standings again next season. With more seniors, the Gaels might have the added sense of urgency that is required to navigate all the way through a conference tournament.