Photo courtesy of Iona College Athletics
By David Cordova
When March comes around, it is a time for teams to get excited and prepare for their respective conference tournament play. Anything that happened before means very little at the moment. Every team’s record is 0-0. But with this new season, it’s one and done. The winner advances for a chance at reaching the ultimate goal of a championship, and being the last team standing. And of course, the loser goes home, and waits for another crack at a title next year.
In the case of the Iona Gaels, they would be the last team standing on a Monday night at the Times Union Center in Albany. Prior to this championship game against Fairfield, the Gaels were two-time defending MAAC champions and had was the leader in the most conference titles with 10, which started when the conference first held its tournament in 1982 at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in which they were actually the first winner.
When the season started, the Gaels were picked as the No. 1 team to win the MAAC, but head coach Tim Cluess felt that preseason rankings didn’t matter at all. “I just get a kick out of the whole thing, preseason polls are completely useless. Whatever we’re picked, it doesn’t matter. Whether we’re picked first, last or in the middle, does it really matter?” says Cluess.
In the beginning of the season, his words had hit their mark, as they went 1-4 in their first five games of the season, before regrouping to go 5-2 during the rest of their non-conference schedule. Then, in during conference play, they managed to go 11-7. During the tournament, they managed to beat both Manhattan and St. Peter’s, which set up the championship matchup between the Fairfield Stags, a team in which they split their season series with.
“When you’re going through some difficult times, you wonder how your season is going to end. You wonder if those difficult times are going to lead to a special ending, or if they’re going to have you fall apart. And it leads to a special ending for me, and I know that my players won’t have to take it the rest of their lives and realized we worked through some adversity and we found a way to succeed and that’s what it’s about off the court more than on the court.”
He added about his team’s toughness. “They’re just a tough, gritty group. They just don’t give up.”
Iona 83, Fairfield 71
As it showed throughout the first half, as Fairfield knocked on their door a couple of times, due to the hot shooting of senior Tyler Nelson (25 points), and even held a lead at a couple of points in the game. But Iona managed to hold strong leads throughout the half, and went to junior forward Roland Griffin (29 points and eight rebounds) and graduate student and guard Zach Lewis (20 points) for help on offense. The Gaels went into halftime leading, 43-37.
In the second half, Iona started to separate themselves from Fairfield, with the lead growing from five points to ten and then eventually, twenty, all due to the play of Griffin, Lewis and also junior guards Rickey McGill (10 points). The Stags could not contain the momentum of the Gaels.
Although they managed to get to at least six points, 75-69, with 1 minute to go, their fate had already been decided, as their counterparts would emerge victorious for yet another year, as they would achieve a three-peat.
Iona became the third team in MAAC history to achieve three straight conference championships. The other two were LaSalle from 1988 to 1990 and Siena from 2008 to 2010.
“I think they just all came together and realized they were good enough to win,” says Cluess of his team, “I think the players tried to hold themselves responsible for how they practice, for how they spent their time away from basketball and more importantly, when they’re on the court. Responsibility offensively and defensively and it wasn’t okay to make mistakes any longer and guys held themselves to a higher standard, and because of that we were fortunate to find a way to win.”
Now that the dust has settled, all Iona can do now is wait until Selection Sunday to find out where they’ll be seeded in the NCAA Tournament. But the pattern of hard work and buying into Coach Cluess’ plan of winning is sure to continue.
The next goal for the Gaels is to play in the first round and advance. The program is 1-12 in NCAA Tournament play, with the only win coming in 1980 over Holy Cross when the legendary Jim Valvano was at the helm.
For now, the celebration is on in New Rochelle, as they are now a part of the history books.