Photo courtesy of St. John’s University Athletics.
By David Cordova
New York City is considered to be the Mecca of Basketball for many reasons. One of those is because there are a lot of great college basketball programs in the area with historical significance. But two teams that stand out above the rest are both St. John’s and Iona.
In this decade, the Iona Gaels, a powerhouse in the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) have maintained more dominance as they have made four NCAA Tournament appearances in the last seven years under head coach Tim Cluess, including the past two seasons. The Red Storm have made only two appearances, both under former head coach Steve Lavin, in 2011 and 2015.
But now, it’s a new day and both teams are trying to get ready for their impending conference seasons. The last time both teams played, it was December 27th, 1995, at Madison Square Garden. The Gaels ended up with a 13-point victory, 70-57, in the semifinals of the ECAC Holiday Festival. In the series between both of schools, the Red Storm led 6-3 coming into this game.
“A lot had to do with Tim Cluess and his connection to St. John’s. When you schedule a game, dates have to match up and things like that, so it’s not as easy as just saying that you want to play this team.” said Red Storm head coach Chris Mullin on why it has been a long time since both teams played each other. “It was a good experience and there’s a connection there that goes way back. Overall, it wasn’t an artistic game or a pretty game. I didn’t know it had been that long [22 years].”
Now, 22 years later, both teams were back at the same venue, meeting up to duel in the MSG Holiday Festival. The Red Storm were 8-2 and the Gaels were 5-4. But what mattered on the minds of the players and coaches, was a win. On this December evening, only one team would leave the World’s Most Famous Arena as the winner of this matchup.
This matchup would be the first of five games that St. John’s would play on the Garden court this season. “It’s funny because I think it gets a lot more recognition now. That’s probably from social media. It’s always been the premier place to place basketball, going back to the 40s and 50s,” said Mullin, “It’s always been the Mecca of basketball, so it’s special. We love playing there. So for the guys who haven’t played there, it’s a special time. For high school, college, or even NBA guys, whenever you come into the Garden you want to put on a show. Everyone usually has it marked on their calendar when they are playing at the Garden, and it’s no different for us.”
St. John’s 69, Iona 59
Early in the game, both teams struggled with their shooting from the three-point line, but there were plenty of toughness when it came to rebounds. However, St. John’s managed to stay ahead early, 12-8, with 11:21 left in the first half.
The Gaels then countered with five consecutive points from graduate student Jan Svandrilik as they cut the deficit to 14-13 with less than 10 minutes to go in the first half. But then the Red Storm then switched gears with the inside presence on defense of redshirt junior Tariq Owens and the scoring redshirt sophomore Justin Simon, as they helped St. John’s take an eight-point lead, 21-13, with over six minutes to go in the first half.
But then a 5-0 run by the Gaels that involved a three by graduate student Zach Lewis and a layup by sophomore E.J. Crawford brought them within two, 21-19, with 3:57 left in the first half. Moments later, Crawford made a three-point play tie the score at 25-25 with 43 seconds left. Both teams would go into half time with that same score.
In the first half, the Red Storm shot 32% from the field, while the Gaels shot 31%. But even though Iona shot a dreadful 29% from three-point range, St. John’s shot 0-for-7 from long range, which contributed to the comeback of their counterparts.
“We didn’t play that well in the first half, but I don’t think it had anything to do with our opponent. I thought we got good looks, missed a lot of easy shots, and I think when you do that, no matter who you are playing against, it keeps that team in the game.” said Mullin about the first half, “At halftime I was thinking, ‘What should I even be changing,’ but I didn’t know because we couldn’t get any better shots than we were getting. I thought we played with a little more energy and moved our bodies in the second half. We were very lethargic, even coming across half court we were laboring. Just put some energy into the game, into our cuts, moved the ball a little better, and as crazy as it may sound, we made about three-or-four layups and created some separation. When we made that little separation, we made two-or-three wide-open layups and it helped us get a little separation.”
But at the second half, the Red Storm came out more aggressive, with a 7-0 run to take a seven-point lead, 32-25, with 16:42 to go in the second half. Moments later, they went on a 6-4 run, which included two straight layups by sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds, to take a 38-29 lead with 15:25 to go in the game.
Iona could not make any shots at this juncture and they would start to have fouls called against them, so their counterparts continued to go on a tear, a 12-3 run, to give them a 50-32 lead, with 13:05 to go.
““We kept on attacking. We played against a small team. They do a good job on defense but they don’t really have a shot blocker,” said senior forward Bashir Ahmed. “Our coaches just told us to keep attacking and get to the line. The start of the second half that’s what we did, we came in attacking and we got into the bonus.”
But just when many thought the Gaels would go down, senior guard Deyshonee Much helped quell that notion with a four-point play, with 7:06 to go, to bring the Gaels to within eleven, 58-47. Then junior guard Rickey McGill would cut it to seven, 58-51, with 5:10 to go after hitting two consecutive baskets.
But the Red Storm would not let up as they continued to unleash their dominance in the waning minutes of the game, with a putback slam by Owens to give the Red Storm a 14-point lead, 65-51, with 3:07 to go. The Gaels would get to as much as eight, 67-59, with 48.5 seconds to go. But St. John’s would emerge victorious.
Ponds led St. John’s with 16 points, Simon added 15 points and Clark, Owens and Ahmed all added 12 points. For Iona, Much led with 15 points, Crawford added 12 points and Griffin contributed with 11 points.
Although St. John’s had a rough game from three-point range, shooting 0-for-12 from behind the line, they still managed to pull off the what was basically a home game for them.
“Our defense has been great. Again tonight, I thought we were really, really good. Tariq [Owens] was incredible by blocking shots and cutting off the basket. We wanted to get [Iona] off the three, and have them try and finish over our length. So, defense has been good and we just have to keep plugging away.” said Mullin, “Like I’ve said, sometimes you wonder if we are getting back looks, but I thought we were getting good looks. At halftime, I thought if I should change something, but I don’t think we could’ve gotten much better than that. We just started making some shots, but the good thing is that even though we are struggling on offense, it hasn’t taken away from our defensive effort.”
Now the Red Storm are 9-2 on the season and the Gaels are 5-5. Both teams will take this game as a stepping stone for the conference schedules that await them. But one thing that will always remembered is how both teams came together and played a tough game after a long time.