The premier rivalry in the MAAC took center stage once more Friday night as Iona turned in a stellar defensive effort to take down Manhattan 70-56 at the Hynes Athletic Center in New Rochelle.
The Gaels channeled a defensive identity they had adopted earlier this season but recently lost touch with. Manhattan’s 56 points were the second fewest Iona has given up this year, outdone only by a game at the beginning of January in which they held Niagara to just 52.
On the other hand, it was Manhattan’s third lowest output of the season, besting just a 54 point output at Siena in their MAAC opener, and a 55-53 loss at Niagara earlier this month.
Iona recently fell out of touch with their defensive identity. They resumed MAAC play at the beginning of January with three straight contests holding opponents under 66 points. However, two of their last five games have represented some of the Gaels’ worst defensive efforts of the year.
The Gaels’ 26 game home winning streak came to a halt with their 110-102 loss to Monmouth two weeks ago. Although it was Iona’s top offensive performance of the season, it was also far and away their worst defensive effort. Then in their last game at Fairfield, the Gaels fell 98-91 to a Stags squad they held to just 77 points in their conference opener in December.
Friday’s victory showed Iona once again bought into that defensive attitude which made them so formidable despite the loss of one of their top offensive options in sophomore Schadrac Casimir.
“I just loved our effort from start to finish tonight,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said of his team’s defense. “I thought that’s what we needed – to come out and show that we could play 40 minutes hard, especially after our last game. I’m really proud of our guys for making a commitment to play much harder today than they had in the last game.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Gaels prevailed despite star guard A.J. English being nearly shut out from the scoring column. English did hand out six assists and grab four rebounds, but his four points were his lowest total in over two years.
“It’s not about me; it’s about the team,” English said. “Every team we play, I know they’re going to go with defensive schemes against me. I’ve been playing Manhattan for four years now, and the last three years they always sent double teams, so I told [my teammates] just be ready to shoot. It doesn’t matter if I score zero points. I’m happy when we win.”
English did not knock down a basket until 7:09 remaining in the game, but that bucket came at a critical time when Manhattan made a run to cut the deficit to eight. English’s 3-pointer kick started an 11-0 Iona run which cemented the outcome.
The Gaels were led by guard Ibn Muhammad and forward Isaiah Williams with 15 points apiece (a career high for Muhammad), but early on it appeared forward Jordan Washington would have a career night.
Washington was met with little resistance in the paint by the Manhattan defense earned nine first half points before picking up a pair of fouls less than one minute apart midway through the half. The junior forward finished with 13 points but just one rebound in only 14 minutes on the court.
Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello admitted his team had a simple approach to limit Washington despite lacking a single player capable of guarding him.
“Get him in foul trouble,” Masiello said bluntly. “Get him in foul trouble right away. Go right at him every single time we could. He’s very foul prone, but conversely he gets you in foul trouble. If you leave him in the game, he’s going to foul your team out.”
Washington’s ability to stay on the court will largely determine Iona’s fortunes going forward. Friday was Washington’s second game back from a two game suspension served for his part in a postgame incident following the Gaels’ loss to Monmouth. Iona split those two contests, losing 79-75 at Rider, and defeating Saint Peter’s 64-58.
“Unfortunately Jordan had a couple of foul calls that could have gone either way that put him on the bench,” Cluess said. “He’s very tough to stop around the basket.”
A difficult slate awaits the Gaels over the remainder of the season. They have just three home contests remaining amongst their nine remaining games. Although Iona has been formidable on their home court in recent years, they are just 2-2 in conference road games this season.
As for this rivalry which has defined the MAAC over the last three seasons and represented the conference championship game each of those years, this season’s first meeting did little more than set the board for future matchups.
“We both played, now it’s the chess match,” Masiello said. “Let me make adjustments, let’s see what adjustments Tim and Iona make, let’s see how we play the second time. They might win that one, but you just keep going. It’s all about growing. It’s all about our young players.”
Round two is scheduled for little under a month from now, February 26 at Manhattan’s Draddy Gymnasium.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.