Iona 67, Rider 58: Gaels Adopting A New Identity

When Iona jumped out to a 7-0 lead over Rider in the first two minutes of their Thursday night matchup, it looked like business as usual for the Gaels, who had won 24 consecutive home contests entering this meeting with the Broncs.

A.J. English
A.J. English is averaging 19.7 ppg since returning from a hand injury.

What followed over the next 38 minutes was a battle not many expected before tip-off. In a game marked for its defense rather than the offensive prowess possessed by its participants, Iona and Rider exchanged leads eight times. Visitors to the Hynes Center, accustomed to cheering their team to double-digit victories, may have instead been shaking their heads in worry as the 0-3 Broncs hung with their Gaels throughout.

After Iona’s hot start, a quick timeout from Rider head coach Kevin Baggett helped ease the tempo. The teams entered halftime knotted at 29, and only due to Isaiah Williams’ 3-pointer at the buzzer to snatch the lead from the Broncs. Despite the Gaels’ head start, both teams averaged just 0.94 points per possession through the first 20 minutes.

Thanks to improved play from forward Jordan Washington and a timely 3-pointer from Ibn Muhammad, Iona was finally able to put Rider away late. Scoreless in the first half, Washington notched 11 in the second frame while Muhammad delivered the Gaels’ sole 3-pointer of the half to push their lead to eight with 1:22 to play.

Here are three thoughts from Iona’s victory over Rider:

Iona can play defense too! Under Tim Cluess, the Gaels have always been known as one of the highest-scoring teams not just in the MAAC, but in the entire country.

Entering Thursday night, Iona ranked 67th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency according to KenPom and 25th in tempo. This is actually down from ranks of 38th and 12th last season, but still a fitting representation of Cluess’ high-scoring system.

Despite their reputation, the Gaels of late have not been the same offensive juggernaut. Iona has twice eclipsed the 100-point barrier this season, but have not broken 80 in their last seven contests. At a glance, you might expect the team to be in free fall if they’re not scoring, but that has not been the case. In fact, the Gaels are riding a four game winning streak and just improved to 5-0 in conference play.

The reason for their winning streak is Iona’s improved defensive play of late. Despite this being just the second time in MAAC play under Cluess that the Gaels have scored fewer than 70 points in back to back games (a 66-52 win over Niagara Monday), Thursday’s win also marked just the second time under Cluess that Iona has held consecutive opponents under 60 points.

“We needed our defense to get a lot better regardless of who we had playing out there,” Cluess said following Thursday’s win. “The fact that we’ve played shorthanded a lot of games and have been able to continue to get better in that area is great. We’ve spent a lot of time on defense because we figured that was going to be what was going to make us better in March.”

Rider’s Teddy Okereafor was the latest victim of Iona’s new identity. The graduate guard and Preseason First Team All-MAAC selection poured in a career-high 30 points in the Broncs’ last game at Quinnipiac Monday night, but was held to just five points on 1-for-9 shooting and an 0-for-5 mark from behind the arc at Iona.

“He was the guy who we wanted to concentrate on tonight,” Cluess said of Okereafor. “We figured that they go by the way he goes a lot of times. We didn’t want their best player to beat us, and I thought our guys did a great job of not making it easy for him.”

In addition to leading the Broncs in scoring, Okereafor was tasked with guarding English.

Okereafor has been burdened with the expectation to do it all for the Broncs this season. Entering Thursday night, Rider’s star guard led the team in scoring with 12.6 ppg, 4.1 apg, and ranked third with 4.3 rpg. Add in the unenviable task of guarding one of the nation’s top 10 scorers in A.J. English, who led all scorers Thursday with 24 points, and it’s easy to see why Okereafor had an off night.

“We’re asking him to score the ball, bring the ball up, and guard A.J. English,” Baggett said of Okereafor. “That’s a lot, and we’re playing him 38 minutes. I think he was more focused on trying to make sure he contained A.J. as much as he could and I think he got into a little bit of a funk.”

Baggett failed to find Okereafor respite due partly to an eye injury suffered by teammate Zedric Sadler in the second half. Sadler averages just 4.2 ppg off the bench, but is often used to give Okereafor a breather.

“When Zed went down it certainly hurt us because we could take Teddy off of guarding A.J. and Zed would guard him,” Baggett said. “Obviously when Zed went down that couldn’t happen.”

Showdown looming. It’s hard not to look ahead to next Friday when one of the premier games on the MAAC schedule takes place. Monmouth (and their bench) visit New Rochelle in the first of two meetings which could likely decide the top seed in the conference tournament.

As mentioned, with their win over Rider, the Gaels pushed their home winning streak to 25. A date with Marist this Saturday is all that stands between Iona putting that streak on the line against the Hawks.

While the home winning streak likely being put at risk adds drama to what is already a monumental matchup, Iona’s focus is solely on the game ahead and not on any records at stake.

“I’m just trying to win games,” English said Thursday. “At the end of the day I’ll take a MAAC championship and me personally a National Championship over a home winning streak.”

The showdown has already been moved to a 9PM tip January 15 and will be broadcast on ESPNU.

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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