Rhode Island 79, Iona 74 (OT): Gaels Nearly Pull Off Remarkable Win

KINGSTON, R.I. – As far as walk-ons go, Iona freshman Benjamin Nwokeabia has a pretty good resume, the Swiss native played AAU ball and at Impact Academy in Sarasota, Fla.

But he doesn’t appear among the 12 names on the front of the Iona media notes in “At a Glance”, and he had so little chance of getting meaningful minutes Saturday night at the Ryan Center against Rhode Island that his bio wasn’t included either. So the confluence of events that saw him on the floor late in overtime of a tight game Saturday night, well, that’s quite a long story.

Alas, if you’ve been following you know much of it. Kelvin Amayo is out indefinitely with a knee injury and Schadrac Casimir the same with a stubborn groin injury that is not healing as fast as anyone involved with Iona would like. MAAC Preseason Player of the Year A.J. English will hopefully be back for MAAC play from a broken bone in his hand.

So they were three regulars down at tipoff. Then Isaiah Williams, Iona’s biggest star remaining, somehow committed four fouls in 45 seconds on the court in the second half, his fifth and final a questionable call with 6:51 still left in regulation. Soon after, Wake Forest transfer Aaron Rountree joined him and with 1.6 seconds left in a tie game, Jordan Washington (the leading scorer remaining on the roster) committed his fifth foul.

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Yet Nicole Akele missed both, and Iona – who was down seven when Williams fouled out – had miraculously forced overtime on the road against a Rhode Island team with at-large NCAA Tournament aspirations (quelled a little by an injury of their own, point guard E.C. Matthews tore his ACL in the season opener and is done for the season).

None of the five that played the majority of overtime – Deyshonee Much, Jahaad Proctor, Ibn Muhammad, Taylor Bessick, and Ryden Hines – started the season opener against Valparaiso last month and Hines had played only five minutes all season because of injury before being forced into action because there were no other scholarship players available (freshman Rickey McGill was dressed, but is still recovering from mono and Tim Cluess decided not to risk playing him).

Still, Much – who finished with 25 points and was massive late – opened the extra session with a three to give Iona its largest (and only) lead of the night. Nwokeabia got his moment late, with more foul trouble looming, he was sent out there to send URI to the foul line. Alas, it wasn’t to be, the Rams (7-4) hit some big shots late and the Gaels (4-4) finally ran out of magic tricks and fell 79-74 in overtime.

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But while some will question the existence of moral victories, this certainly seemed to be one for Iona, who went from being extremely shorthanded to comically undermanned and still almost pulled off what would be a memorable win against a team that beat them handily in last season’s NIT.

“I’m proud of the way our kids came through a lot of adversity, even if we didn’t get the win tonight,” Cluess said. “Hopefully this will help us down the road.”

What else did we learn Saturday at the Ryan Center?:

  1. Iona has depth, but needs to get healthy

More on Deyshonee Much in a second, but the Gaels played a fantastic defensive game throughout. Some of that was Rhode Island’s inability to hit shots and put together a solid zone offense, but even at the other end, Iona committed only nine turnovers (12.0%, URI had only one steal).

Iona only scored 21 points in the first half on a putrid 0.66 points per possession. But against the 20th best defense in the country, the Gaels started running more in the second, and got the number up to 1.24 ppp to get back into the contest. While Jahaad Proctor, who had been hot in previous games, struggled, Washington and Bessick both contributed by scoring in the paint, while Rountree finished with 11 rebounds and three blocks.

Alas, as we said after Wednesday’s game, all that is fine if Iona eventually gets back to full strength, and there’s no indication at the moment that they will. The Gaels face a difficult trip to Las Vegas with games Tuesday and Wednesday against UC Santa Barbara and Akron, both very good teams in their respective conferences (Big West and MAC). While the hope is that English will return for MAAC play (Jan. 2 at Quinnipiac), there’s no guarantee that Casimir or Amayo will. That would mean either starting Muhammad or playing someone like English at the point when he returns. It can be done, but it’s not ideal, and with Monmouth making a name for itself and others in the MAAC lurking, it’s a small margin between the top and a couple of spots down the list.

2) Deyshonee Much makes a statement

At halftime, Much had two points on 0-5 from the field, which had to be disappointing to him, he was recruited by Bobby and Danny Hurley at URI, and eventually committed to Bobby and played a semester at Buffalo last year before transferring to Iona.

But with the team having few (really no) other options, Much scored 20 points in the second half alone, including 12 after Williams fouled out, culminated by a tying three-pointer with 11.8 seconds to go, the first time the game was even since the opening tip. Much also had five assists in that second half, after URI figured out he was really the only outside threat left, they sprinted at him in numbers, allowing him to do what English does so well, dump the ball off to Washington or Bessick, who were able to finish at the hoop (against one of the best defenses in the country, no less).

“He came in here for an unofficial, Bob was recruiting him for us and then he ended up having some issues where we couldn’t take him based on the situation we were in in terms of our APR (Academic Progress Rate) at the time,” Dan Hurley said. “He went to Buffalo, things didn’t work out there, and he was obviously coming for me today. But Bob buried me there. We don’t have Buffalo on the schedule.”

3) A struggle for URI right now

As much as it was a gutsy effort from Iona, Hurley knows how shorthanded the Gaels were and how much his team struggled – at home – to put them away. The injury to Matthews is devastating, but the Rams were picked second in the preseason Atlantic-10 poll with eight first-place votes, and this was the year (Hurley’s fourth in Kingston) that they were supposed to end the school’s 16 year NCAA Tournament drought. It still could happen, but at 7-4 and a full conference schedule awaiting, performances like Saturday’s, even if they did get a win in the end, are not terribly encouraging.

“I’m happy to get the win, and I thought Hass (Hassan Martin, who had 27 points and nine rebounds) played the way you need your best player to play,” Hurley said. “But the other four starters had discouraging offensive numbers (combined 12-45 from field). We’ve got to play better. Offensively, we have to make more shots, make more plays. It seemed like the shots that Williams and Much were making were a lot tougher than the ones we were missing, and that’s pretty scary going forward.”

Game on from Kingston. #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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