Albany, N.Y. – A.J. English flirted with a triple-double as Iona ran away from Canisius 73-55 in the quarterfinals of the MAAC tournament at the Times Union Center.
English led all scorers with 20 points and completed his fourth double-double of the season with 10 assists. The Gaels’ star fell just three rebounds shy of what would have been just the third triple-double in Iona history.
For the third time in the last four years, Canisius was bounced from the tournament by the Gaels. The Golden Griffins fell to fourth-seeded Monmouth in last year’s quarterfinals.
Iona used separate runs of 15-5 and 12-3 to open up an 18 point lead late in the first half and took a 15 point lead into halftime. The Gaels did not let up in the second half, putting together a 16-5 run midway through the second frame to put away the Golden Griffins for good.
Here are three thoughts from Iona’s win over Canisius:
1.) A.J. English is locked in. Iona’s senior was named the Preseason Player of the Year, but lost out on the postseason award to Monmouth’s Justin Robinson earlier Thursday evening. In response, English posted one of his most complete stat lines of the year.
Despite losing out to Robinson in a narrow 6-5 vote, English denied the snub had an effect on his approach to the weekend. Instead, he remained focused on the larger task at hand.
“He’s a great player, and he has my vote,” English said of Robinson. “It’s going to happen like that, but at the end of the day it’s not about me. I’m just glad we got the win.”
The evolution of English’s game has kept his coach, Tim Cluess, impressed throughout his guard’s senior season. Of English’s four double-doubles, three have come on combinations of points and assists.
“His game has slowed down a lot for him over the last two years and even moreso this year,” Cluess said of English. “He sees things that are going on on the floor almost in slow motion at times. That, to me, is the sign of a really good player when not only he can score the ball, but he can pass the ball.”
2.) The format change hurt Canisius. The Golden Griffins were the first casualty of the revised tournament format that has the league’s top two teams playing their quarterfinal games on Friday night rather than Saturday afternoon.
Compounding the short turnaround, it took Canisius three overtimes to dispatch local rival Niagara Thursday night. Iona also had the advantage of being able to focus on Canisius for five days after dispatching the Griffs 86-78 in their season finale.
“We were spending our whole week in preparation for Niagara,” head coach Jim Baron said. “You’ve got to be focused on the team in front of you because you may not get to the second team if you don’t totally focus on the team you’re playing.”
Canisius’ three departing players include Jamal Reynolds, Kevin Bleeker, and Malcolm McMillan. McMillan came to Canisius as a graduate transfer from Central Connecticut State University and led the Griffs with 14.9 ppg.
“It was a great learning experience,” McMillan said of his year at Canisius. “It’s been a great year. We had a good win last night against Niagara in triple overtime, it was a quick turnaround, and we came out and gave it our all.”
3.) Iona is in for a challenge in the semifinals. The Gaels’ semifinal opponent will be determined Saturday night, but they will be faced with a tough test regardless of the opponent. Iona is slated to play the winner of Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup between Siena and Manhattan.
Thus, the Gaels will come face to face with either Siena on their home floor or their biggest local rival whom they have hooked up with in each of the last three MAAC Championship games.
“The preference was us playing on Sunday and our preference worked,” Cluess said.
Iona has enjoyed consistent success under Cluess, and that consistency has carried over into March. The Gaels have won 20 or more games in every one of Cluess’ six seasons as head coach and have advanced to at least the tournament semifinals in each of those seasons.
“It’s all about the players,” Cluess credited with the program’s consistency. “We’ve been blessed to have good players come into our program. Our players recruit other players, because they enjoy playing in our program so much and they enjoy the culture of the school.”
Although Cluess admitted no preference in Sunday’s opponent, the Gaels enjoyed much better success against the Jaspers than the Saints this season. Iona swept Manhattan with an average margin of victory of 13.5 points, but split the season series with Siena. The Gaels dropped an 81-78 contest in New Rochelle February 13 before claiming a six point victory at the Times Union Center a week later.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.