Iona coach Tim Cluess was trying to direct his team’s offense, which was right in front him, but instead just looked exasperated. His team’s seemingly insurmountable second-half lead has all but evaporated, now down to 3 with four minutes left, and the Gaels’ offense – 40th nationally in efficiency – but not so long ago in the top 15 – was stagnant again, even against the 332nd ranked defense in Siena.
Eventually, Siena would get it all the way to two, but again, Cluess’ defense came up big at the other end as Iona survived and advanced, 74-71, barely, thanks to some A.J. English heroics (32 points and another trademark back-breaking three-pointer late after Siena had gotten it all the way down to two in the final minute) with a road win over No. 8 Siena in front of a loud partisan crowd at the Times-Union Center.
“I’m very proud of my team for winning their 12th road game of the year,” Cluess said after the game.
In the end, it was mission accomplish. But can Iona play with fire twice more and not get burned?
If you took the crowd and the surroundings out of the equation, Iona looked very much at home for most of the first half of Saturday’s first MAAC quarterfinal. Apparently after drawing straws in the locker room in pregame it was Schadrac Casimir’s turn to defer as A.J. English and Isaiah Williams combined for 31 first-half points on 7-10 shooting from behind the arc.
But Siena wasn’t about to go down fighting, using one of the few things they excelled at this season – offensive rebounding (32nd nationally in rate) to stay within striking distance and almost pull the upset.
The second half, both the pace and shooting went away from the Gaels, and Iona had to rely on its (gasp) defense. But as we’ve talked about down the stretch here, it’s been better than you’d think in the second half of the season. But that didn’t make the nerves any less for Iona.
Here are my three thoughts from the first of four at the Times-Union Center:
- Siena should be OK next season – Pinpointing exactly what happened on the defensive end is tough. But with the return of Brett Bisping along with everyone else besides Rob Poole and Evan Hymes (who played very well Saturday). They actually showed some improvement toward the end of this season, but there will be a lot of pressure to succeed in 2015-16.
- Old-school Iona – The Gaels have struggled somewhat down the stretch offensively and have had to rely on (gasp) defense to continue as MAAC champions. They didn’t seem to have much issue with the road thing Saturday on the offensive end, but did have trouble on defense at times. Now Siena has been a decent offensive team, but Tim Cluess will be slightly concerned with his defensive rebounding (as well as the offense) with a possible Monmouth-Manhattan path to the MAAC title.
- Iona needs to go faster – Much of their offensive struggles in the second half (maybe with the exception of Casimir) came when they missed shots late in the shot clock. In the first half, they got shots early in possessions and in transition and looked unstoppable. But it never materialized in the second half and they looked extremely vulnerable, as they did many times without Isaiah Williams in the lineup.