WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. – Thunderous boos from a packed Monmouth University student section greeted the Iona College men’s basketball team as it took the floor Friday night at the Multipurpose Activity Center on the Monmouth campus.
The initial response from many of the Gaels was to smile as the jeers poured over them.
But their next response was more telling.
Led by 31 points by electric senior guard A.J. English Iona tightened the race for first place in the MAAC with a convincing 83-67 victory.
A record Monmouth (22-6, 14-3) men’s basketball crowd of 4,522, the team’s fifth sellout of the season, had been anticipating the first place the Hawks clinching the top seed in the upcoming MAAC tournament.
Instead Iona (16-10, 13-4) moved within one game of the MAAC lead with each team having three league games remaining. The outcome snapped Monmouth’s eight-game winning streak as well as the Hawks’ nine game winning streak at the MAC.
“It’s great,” English said of the din from the home crowd. “We’re not necessarily used to that.
“Big conferences you usually get that, a crowd like this all the time,” he said. “We knew it was going to happen (Friday). We want that, that’s exciting for us for guys to play in this atmosphere.”
Despite the loss, Monmouth still controls its own destiny thanks to its one-game lead in the MAAC standings. It owns tie-breakers for the No.1 seed should it fall into a first place deadlock with Iona.
Iona used a 19-0 first half run to take control. It led 41-20 with 3:24 left in the first half and mounted its largest lead at 57-35 early in the second.
Justin Robinson scored 21 points for Monmouth, which Feb. 19 had made up a 14-point deficit with less than four minutes remaining in pulling out a stunning victory at Rider.
Friday the 6’4 English made sure there would be no repeat performance. He drained three 3’s and scored 17 points in the final 7:24 helping prevent Monmouth from cutting its deficit below 11 points.
“The guy (English) sitting right next to me, I can’t say enough great things about A.J. and how he helped carry our team through this,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said.
“He fights on both ends, leads all the time by example with his play on the court, and I’m lucky to coach him.”
Monmouth played without 6’6 forward Deon Jones.
Monmouth’s No. 3 scorer (10.5 ppg) and No. 1 rebounder (6.5 rpg) suffered a broken right hand in the first half Monday when he collided with Manhattan guard Thomas Capuano.
Monmouth is now 8-4 when Jones fails to reach double figures. It was 14-2 when he did. Jones had 18 points in Monmouth’s victory at Iona.
Jones tweeted Thursday that he had undergone successful surgery, and Friday he watched from the bench.
Monmouth coach King Rice Friday offered no further update or timetable for a possible return of his team’s lone senior.
Here are takeaways from Friday’s game
1. Iona’s defense was far more focused than Jan. 15 when Monmouth snapped Iona’s 26-game home court winning streak, 110-102.
In that game Monmouth scored 66 points in the second half. Friday night it scored 67 in the game after mustering a season low 25 points in the first half.
Collin Stewart who swished four 3-point baskets in less than two minutes to trigger a decisive Monmouth spurt in that game missed five 3’s and shot 0-7 Friday.
At halftime Friday Monmouth was shooting 28 percent (9-32) and 18 percent (2-11) from beyond the arc.
At the half Iona was ruling in points off turnovers (11-2) and second chance points (17-4). In transition, where Monmouth normally thrives, it had not registered anything via the fast break.
“I was very happy with the way we defended today most of the time,” Cluess said.
“Coach Cluess and everybody on the coaching staff has really been preaching about our defense,” English said. “He’s always preaching that defense wins championships and that’s the way to success for us.
“They missed some shots tonight. Coach Cluess has really been punishing us to make sure we play defense.”
English acknowledged film study contributed to that success. “Of course watching film a lot after playing somebody helps, knowing the players, getting used to players because they (Monmouth) have a decent amount of first-year players (benefited Iona),” he said.
According to English the fact that Monmouth could have clinched the regular season MAAC title with a win Friday was not a factor.
“Honestly I was never even worried about that,” English said. “I was just trying to worry about winning another MAAC game, competing for my team, and for coach Cluess and everybody on our coaching staff.”
Freshman reserve guard Rickey McGill gave Iona a nine point boost off the bench including a second half layup when Monmouth was attempting to make it a game.
Averaging 2 ppg McGill scored his most points since his career high 11 Jan. 2 at Quinnipiac.
“It was huge being able to get that lift off the bench,” Cluess said. “Not just the points but the defensive energy.”
Would Iona welcome a third meeting with Monmouth in the MAAC tournament?
“No comment,” Cluess said.
Rice had a different answer. “Yes, we would,” he said.
2.The game never appeared to be in doubt after Iona’s big first half run.
“It’s a big thing to be up that much,” English said. “But at the end of the day teams are going to keep playing. They kept pressing us until the clock was off.
“That’s what happens. As soon we got up coach Cluess kept saying ‘Keep your foot on the gas, keep holding them to stops, keep rebounding,’ stuff like that.”
“They scored, we didn’t,” Robinson said of Iona’s game-breaking barrage.
“We put our heads down defensively which is something we have reiterated we can’t do. And we did it for an extensive period of time.”
Iona held Monmouth scoreless for over seven minutes as the Hawks missed nine shots and lost the ball six times while the huge crowd screeched in dismay.
“It’s not just Iona,” Robinson said. You do that against any team in the country they’re going to capitalize on it.”
“They’re a great team,” English said of the Hawks. “They have a great player in Justin Robinson and Deon Jones is from Delaware (as is English) and I’m praying for him to get healthy. I’ve known him since I was a little kid.”
3. Rice said he did not have his team ready for the intensity that Iona unleashed at the outset.
Especially in the first half Monmouth’s offense seemed disjointed at times with forced shots. Sporadically during the game it was searching for openings as the shot clock dwindled.
“They beat us tonight in our building, (we’re) not frustrated,” Rice said, his statements coming with machine-gun rapidity.
“We lost a game, hadn’t lost one in a long time, had eight wins in a row. Tonight we got lumped up by a better team,” Rice said.
Rice offered no excuses for 11 first half turnovers as passes were tipped loose or went astray.
Nor was he about to blame some of Monmouth’ problems for the late start (10 p.m. as mandated by ESPN) or the absence of Jones.
“Deon wasn’t going to stop their 20-point lead,” Rice said. “That’s not what Deon does. Usually for one night a team will step up and play better when you have a guy injured, for one night. Tonight was not that night for us.
“It was Iona (that) jumped on us and outplayed us in every aspect. They got the loose balls, they made more plays than we made. (Monmouth) got beat by a better team…. tonight.”
Rice noted no team is infallible.
“Maryland (No. 6 in the AP poll) lost to Minnesota (a Big 10 bottom feeder) last (Thursday) night,” Rice said.
Rice pointed out Monmouth is still in first place in the MAAC. “We are still the best team” he said. Just look at the records.
“Don’t get it twisted, we lost a game. Everybody’s got hard games coming up, we’ll see after those three who is where.”
Monmouth visits Saint Peter’s (12-14, 10-7) 2 p.m. Sunday, hosts Rider (11-17, 7-10) 9 p.m. Friday, and Niagara (7-21, 5-12) 5 p.m. Feb. 28.
Iona travels to Siena (19-9, 12-5) 7 p.m. Monday, visits Manhattan (11-14, 8-8) 7 p.m. Friday, and hosts Canisius (11-17, 6-11) 4 p.m. Feb. 28 in its regular season finale.
Rice said Iona defensively played similar to Manhattan which Monmouth defeated Monday, 79-70.
“They put all their guys up front to try to not let Justin get going and we didn’t – the coaching staff – did not do a good enough job of having the kids ready to beat it,” he said.
Unlike the first meeting when a melee broke out in post game when Iona forward Jordan Washington slapped Monmouth center Chris Brady across the face, there were no post game incidents Friday.
Iona Siena guard Ibn Muhammad was assessed a flagrant one technical foul at 12:37 of the second half.
“But we acted cool in the hand shake line,” Rice said. “Everybody was good both ways, gave some hugs, everybody was good.”
“(I’m) happy for their young men. A.J. is one of the best players in the league.”
4. Is there an advantage to owning the top seed in the MAAC tournament?
Well, yes, but it is hardly overwhelming.
Since the first championship in 1982 was won by three seed Iona over one seed Saint Peter’s in overtime at the Meadowlands Arena, the top seed has reached MAAC tournament title game 22 times (65%), winning less than half, 15 (44%).
Since 2000 the top seed has appeared in the final 10 times.
Also, if you’re playing Siena at its home court, the Times Union Center which is the site of this year’s event, the Saints are 4-2 in championship games in their own building. They have won their last four appearances in the final which has been played at at the TUC (also previously called the Knickerbocker Arena and Pepsi Center) since 1990.
When Iona visits Siena Monday it will be trying to prevent the Saints from becoming the first team to sweep it during the regular season since Siena in 2009-2010. Siena defeated Iona in New Rochelle, N.Y. 81-78 on Feb. 13. … English brought his career point total to 1,828 which, fifth all time in program history passing Tariq Kirksay. Iona legend Jeff Ruland is next with 1,855 career points. … English scored 30 or more points for the 12th time, tying Steve Burtt Jr. … Iona is 35-9 in February under sixth-year coach Cluess and is 7-2 over its last nine games.
Monmouth entered the game ranked No. 1 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25 Poll for the first time in school history. … Robinson’s 21 points Friday boosted his season total to 1,210. He passed Whitney Coleman (1,203 points) for ninth place on the program’s Division I charts, 21st all-time at the school. His season total of 569 points leaves him 94 points behind Division I single season record holder Alex Blackwell, who scored 663 points in 1990-91. Ron Kornegay’s 773 points in 1967-68 is the program high. … Friday Monmouth junior enter Zac Tillman saw his first action in four games since the death of his father. He did not score in seven minutes. … Jones’s injury occurred on defense when he was contacted by Manhattan guard Thomas Capuano who was crossing in front of him. If Jones’s season is over he will end with 1,186 career points at Monmouth, No. 10 in Division I at Monmouth and No. 21 all-time at the school. Jones transferred from Towson after his freshman year where he scored 223 points.
Some additional MAAC Tournament Trivia
Since the tournament began in 1982, two seven seeds and one eight seed have won championships. Fairfield won as the seven seed in 1987 at the Meadowlands and as No. 8 in 1997 in Buffalo, N.Y. Siena won as the seven seed at the TUC in 2002.
The only top seeds to lose in their first games were Rider to eight seed Canisius in overtime in 2002 and Iona to eight seed Fairfield in 1997.
The tournament was played at the Meadowlands from 1982-89 with the MAAC tinkering with some early round home court games at higher seeds during that span
Did you know? Pat Kennedy, a Shore area product from Red Bank Catholic, N.J. High School, coached Iona from 1980-86. He went on to coach at Florida State, DePaul, Montana, and Towson, and is currently the head coach at Division II Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., located 19 miles north of Iona.