Iona 78, Quinnipiac 66: The Return of A.J. English

It took a while to get back in the groove, but A.J. English and the Iona Gaels left Connecticut with a 78-66 victory over Quinnipiac Saturday afternoon.

A.J. English returned from a five-game absence and nearly posted a triple-double
A.J. English returned from a five-game absence and nearly posted a triple-double

English poured in 14 points in his return from a five game absence nursing a hand injury over the holidays. The senior guard was held without a field goal in the first half, but sparked Iona’s potent offense in the second frame with seven points in less than a minute.

Quinnipiac’s defense held the Gaels in check through the first 20 minutes as Iona carried a 30-27 lead into halftime thanks to 14 first-half points from Isaiah Williams. The senior forward finished with 18 points, playing second fiddle to fellow forward Jordan Washington.

Washington led the attack against the Bobcats’ frontcourt. Despite Quinnipiac consistently being one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, Iona dominated on the glass, outrebounding the Bobcats 57-42 and 25-19 on the offensive end.

Here are four thoughts from Iona’s victory over Quinnipiac:

A.J. English is not yet at full speed, but he’s still pretty darn good. The MAAC Preseason Player of the Year returned to the court for the first time in 17 days and for 25 minutes it looked like he wasn’t ready yet. Then, with just over 15 minutes remaining and Quinnipiac holding a 41-38 advantage, English channeled his inner Reggie Miller.

Iona’s star took to the left wing and buried his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer to pull the Gaels even. English then stole the ensuing inbound pass and turned it into a layup. Following a Quinnipiac turnover on their next possession, English knocked down another jumper and in the span of 35 seconds took his team from trailing by three to leading by four.

“I feel like I’ve still got to get my rhythm back,” English said. “It felt good seeing the ball go through the basket, because I was missing a lot of chippies in the first half. My team kept putting confidence in me, and when I got the seven in a row, I saw their reactions.”

English completed his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and added six assists for good measure.

The Gaels channeled their inner Manhattan. Quinnipiac has struggled to hold on to the ball this season, turning the ball over 16.2 times per game. In response, Tim Cluess and company dialed up the pressure and tracked the Bobcats the length of the floor after every basket, imitating the style of their local rivals in the Bronx.

The Bobcats turned it over just 12 times, a marked improvement over their 21 turnovers against similar pressure from Maine in their last game, but those mistakes were key to English’s flurry which sparked the Gaels in the second half.

“It’s not something that we’re handling well right now,” Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore said of the response to full court pressure. “It’s something we work on a lot, and it’s something that when we see it in games, we don’t look assured or confident. It’s something we have to develop.”

Perhaps the greatest success the Gaels enjoyed from their pressure defense was the contribution they got from freshman Rickey McGill. The seldom-used guard had played just 42 minutes entering Saturday, but poured in a career-high 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting including a 3-for-3 mark from behind the arc.

“We put Rickey in and I thought he gave us extra energy on our defensive end,” Cluess said. “He brought a defensive mindset out there and I think he got everyone else’s energy going. Once we get our energy going, we’re a much better team.”

Quinnipiac needs to bring the energy. Moore was disappointed in his team’s energy level Saturday afternoon. The Bobcats led for just five minutes and let the game get away late thanks to a 25-10 Iona run midway through the second half.

For Moore, a lot of the trouble with Saturday’s performance lay in his team’s lack of enthusiasm, particularly around the basket. While freshman Abdulai Bundu followed up a tremendous 23 point, 15 rebound performance at Maine with another strong 15 point, nine rebound effort against Iona, he is still just a freshman and shouldn’t be relied upon to carry the offense.

“I didn’t like our confidence level, our determination, our belief on offense all day,” Moore said. “You’ve got to score the ball against these guys at a better clip than we’ve been scoring. Abdulai Bundu wasn’t on his heels, but he’s a freshman. A lot of guys were on their heels in the first half offensively.”

A big reason for the Bobcats’ lack of energy is the absence of forward Chaise Daniels, who has missed the last six games with a leg injury suffered at Niagara. The sophomore is nearing a return, but has been referred to as a high-energy player who always keeps his teammates focused during games.

“It does hurt the energy level because he’s an energetic kid,” Moore said of Daniels. “Not only is he a talented player, but he’s really energetic and we miss him on a lot of levels. We miss his production, his enthusiasm, and the opportunity to shorten some other guys’ minutes.”

Iona out-Quinnipiac-ed Quinnipiac. Washington feasted on the young Quinnipiac frontcourt, posting a game-high 19 points and a career-best 15 rebounds for his second career double-double.

“Inside is where I make my bread and butter,” Washington said. “Right there on that block, and just do what I’ve got to do. If I see a double-team I’ll kick out, but if I don’t, I’ve got to eat.”

The Gaels’ tremendous edge on the boards against a Quinnipiac team ranked second in the nation in total rebounds is clear evidence Iona brought a brighter fire into this matchup. It was just the fourth time in the last four seasons the Bobcats have been outrebounded. Two of those occurrences have now come against Iona.

“I thought our guys’ rebounding was the key to the game,” Cluess added. “We outrebounded them by 15 and they’re one of the top teams in the nation in rebounding.”

Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.

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