Iona 101, Fairfield 77: It’s An A.J. English World

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. – Things got pretty awkward for A.J. English in the final five minutes of Tuesday’s eventual destruction of Fairfield at the Hynes Center in the MAAC opener for both teams. Reporters and SIDs had finished scrambling furiously through media notes and websites, and knew – as anyone in the stands could likely surmise by the sheer volume of shots English was hitting – they were watching an historic performance.

By now, English knew as well. Even if he didn’t, his teammates could read the new scoreboards at the Hynes Center and see the “46” next to his name. As he does most times when he’s covered, English passed the ball to his teammates. Like a old-school game of Wonderball, they threw it right back to him, with the crowd imploring him to shoot.

He rushed a three, which he missed (his first miss of the second half after hitting nine straight), then drove into the lane into traffic and couldn’t connect again. Eventually, with the game out of hand, Iona coach Tim Cluess pulled the plug on the record-breaking endeavor and took English out. And perhaps no one was more relieved than A.J. English.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js“I’m not going to lie to you, I knew at the end I was close to 50 because my teammates kept reminding me,” English said. “But I didn’t really know until the last five or six minutes. They kept calling my name, and I was like, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ I was wondering why they were passing up shots and telling me to go.”

Among the records that fell (or almost) did: English’s 13 three-pointers shattered Sean Armand’s former MAAC record (10) and is tied for fifth all-time in Division I with Arkansas’ Rotnei Clarke (who eventually transferred to Butler) in 2009. Marshall’s Keith Veney has the all-time record with 15 in 1996 against Morehead State. However, it’s important to remember that the top four on the all-time list (including Kansas State’s Askia Jones, who hit for 14 in a 1994 NIT game, but only after coach Dana Altman reinserted him in a blowout) were done from the old 19’9” line, not the current 20’9” (changed in 2009). And Clarke accomplished his feat in a laugher against Alcorn State. So you could make a case that English put together the best shooting performance in the history of Division I basketball. I mean, no big deal or anything.

“A.J. English put on a performance for the ages tonight,” Cluess said. “I hope everyone got to enjoy it. I’m glad I got to coach it and watch it. Whenever he does that, he makes the game easy for us. One of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of, maybe the best.”

In addition, English’s 46 points tied a three decades old MAAC record (Holy Cross’ Jim McCaffrey in 1985) and was second all-time in Iona history behind Warren Issac’s 50 against Bates in 1964. What made the performance even more astounding is that English added eight assists (and is 44th nationally in assist rate this season after finishing fourth in the MAAC in 2014-15), the final one the most unpopular because he dished off to Aaron Rountree for a layup with three minutes left when everyone in Hynes wanted him to shoot. While the assist numbers should be proof enough, if you’ve watched English you know that he is far from a gunner. Yet he moved into 13th on Iona’s all-time scoring list despite starting his freshman year as one of the last options off the bench and missing the second half of that campaign with an injury.

“He wasn’t shooting every time he touched it,” Cluess said. “He was finding other guys, making other guys better. I think that’s the difference between him now and a year ago is that he can go out and score and yet still get other guys easy baskets. He knows who the hot hand is, he’s looking for that right guy and understanding defense a lot better to know what they’re giving him, and that’s really grown over the four years.”

English attempted only two threes, missing both, in the season opener against Valparaiso, and entered Tuesday’s MAAC opener just 7-25 from beyond the arc. He also didn’t answer all the questions about Iona, who looks like it may be without Kelvin Amayo for a while longer. But Cluess was absolutely correct when he called Tuesday’s performance “for the ages.” And you can probably say the same for English’s career before his time in New Rochelle in March (and Iona hopes later March).

“Coach Cluess is a great coach, so I just go with what he’s saying,” English said. “He kept drawing stuff up for me and I was getting open. I was just looking up at the scoreboard and trying to win. In the past, we had big leads and turn into one or two possession games. So I was trying to keep my foot on the pedal and keep the lead up.”

 

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There was a game to go with the A.J. English Show on Tuesday and we did learn a few more things:

1) Marcus Gilbert’s injury was unfortunate

Somewhat ironically, A.J. English grew up playing with and against Marcus Glibert, both seniors and both Delaware natives (Delaware being the 49th biggest state in the country and having less than 1 million residents). Gilbert had outplayed English to start this season, including 32 and 33 in his last two games leading up to Tuesday, both Fairfield wins.

But just seven minutes into the game, Gilbert went down with what appeared to be a relatively innocuous ankle roll. After limping to the bench, though, he never returned to the contest and be the end, needed crutches to get to the locker room. It was a shame for Sydney Johnson and the Stags on Tuesday because they led for most of the first half (by as many as nine), and we’ll never know what would have happened. However, the bigger loss may be in the future. Fairfield hosts Rider on Friday, and losing Gilbert for any length of time might kill the momentum the Stags appeared to be gaining.

“We obviously missed him (Gilbert),” Johnson said. “He’s our guy. He’s top 25 in the country in scoring. We knew it was going to be a back and forth game, and we didn’t have our ‘it’ guy and I think that would have affected how the game played out. I can’t promise a win, but I know how well we were playing with him out there, and we really, really missed him.”

2) Hi there, Jahaad Proctor

Proctor’s breakout was completely overshadowed by English, but impressive and necessary nonetheless. An actual true freshman (who was originally a Holy Cross commit, but when Milan Brown was let go decided to reopen his recruitment) at Iona, Proctor had only six points in 25 minutes for the season coming into Tuesday, but scored 15 in the first half (on 6-7 shooting) on his way to 20 points that were big for the Gaels on a night where many players not named English struggled.

“I think we might have found another player for our rotation,” Cluess said.

3) Not all Iona’s questions were answered

Iona posted its 21st straight home victory and 16th straight in MAAC play, and did so in decisive fashion, so it’s hard to find too many complaints. I guess you can look at Isaiah Williams managing just four points (he did have 12 rebound) and Schadrac Casimir going scoreless as a blessing because they can’t do that very often, can they? And the team still won.

You may remember that the last Gael to score 40 was indeed Casimir last season against Delaware State. Cluess said afterward that Casimir is only about “60 percent” because of a groin strain, and they may be a bigger issue than the zero points.

“Last year, the game he had 40 points in (Delaware St.), the game right before that, he had zero,” Cluess said. “So I reminded him of that in the locker room. I said OK, you’re going to get 40 on Friday.”

In the end, Iona held Fairfield to 0.97 points per possession and forced 13 turnovers in the second half, but before those things started happening, Iona did look pretty ordinary. Without Amayo (and Ryden Hines, by the way), they’ll need the trio of Jordan Washington (who ended up with 18 points, all of them close to the rim), Aaron Rountree, and Taylor Bessick to try to fill David Laury’s shoes. They looked more than capable at times, but will have to be consistent if Iona wants to stay ahead of media darling Monmouth in the MAAC race.

We may know more after a somewhat interesting trip to Poughkeepsie to battle Marist on Friday.

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