A spectacular second half in which Iona junior A.J. English pocketed 18 points including four 3-pointers propelled the Gaels past Fairfield 74-58 Tuesday evening and into a tie with Monmouth for first place in the MAAC at 5-1.
Given just a 7% chance to pull off the upset in New Rochelle according to KenPom, Fairfield had things their own way for much of the first half. The Stags led from the gun and opened up a nine point lead thanks to five first half 3-pointers, four of which came off the hands of freshman Tyler Nelson.
However, the Iona scorers woke up in the final minutes of the half. English, along with senior David Laury and freshman Schadrac Casimir combined to outscore the Stags 17-9 over the final seven minutes leading into halftime.
Though Fairfield controlled the tempo for much of the first half and took nine more shots than the high-flying Gaels, Iona was able to capitalize on what opportunities they were given. The Gaels took only 22 shots in the first half, but connected on 59.1% of them, including a 6-11 mark from behind the arc. Thanks to their efficient scoring and late comeback, Iona trailed by just one point at the half.
The story remained much the same in the second half, but with the score knotted at 52 and 11:15 on the clock, Isaiah Williams knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Gaels the lead for good and loosen the floodgates.
Iona followed with a trio of 3-pointers over the next three minutes to burst away and turn what had once been a tight-knit battle into a blowout. A Casimir jumper late in the game broke the 70 point plateau for the Gaels and marked the first time this season Fairfield allowed a team past that point. The Stags had entered Tuesday with a league-best 60.6 points allowed per MAAC game.
Iona’s 6-8 mark from 3-point range in the second half helped them finish with a 12-19 (63.2%) mark for the game. It marks a new season-best 3-point FG% for the Gaels this season, eclipsing the 61.5% they shot against Delaware State in which they made 24 of 39 attempts and scored 126 points.
For one of the few times this year, Iona was tested defensively and rose to the challenge. Although the Gaels shot the ball tremendously, they needed to convert in order to win the game. Their 46 FG attempts mark a season low while their 74 points rank just one point higher than their season low (73 at Wofford).
However, on the other side of the ball Iona held their own, especially in the second half. After allowing Fairfield to shoot nearly 50% in the first half, the Gaels buckled down and allowed the Stags just 34.8% including a 1-7 mark from behind the arc in the second frame. The 58 points scored by Fairfield tie a season low amongst Iona’s opponents (North Texas).
”I think it all started with our defense,” head coach Tim Cluess said. “In the second half we actually defended and played with a lot better effort. To me, if you play good defense it’s going to lead to better offense.”
English finished with a game-high 24 points on 9-11 shooting and dished out 10 assists for only his fourth career double-double and second this season. Laury added 19 points while Casimir finished with 10 of his own.
“I’m the point guard so I just try to get the other guys the ball,” English said of his offensive game. “I just try to go with the flow of the game. I try to get Dave and Isaiah the ball because I know I can be a decoy for them, and once they start scoring everything will open up.”
Mike Kirkland led Fairfield with 18 points and eight rebounds while Nelson used his big first half to end the night with 15 points.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.