Albany, N.Y. – For the fourth year in a row, the Iona Gaels will play for the MAAC Championship.
Iona took down Siena 81-70 Sunday evening at the Times Union Center behind 29 points from senior guard A.J. English. The Gaels’ star came alive in the second half, shooting 8-for-13 from the floor and 5-for-8 from 3-point range in the final twenty minutes.
Though English carried the Gaels home, it was Isaiah Williams who fueled Iona’s quick start. The senior forward scored 13 points in the game’s first 5:07 as Iona jumped out to an early 20-13 lead and left some spectators having flashbacks of last season’s semifinals.
Last year, Williams set a tournament record with nine 3-pointers in a 95-77 victory over Monmouth that propelled the Gaels into their third consecutive title meeting with Manhattan. Iona also set a tournament record for 3-pointers made as a team in that win, knocking down 19.
With his fifth point of the game, Williams became the 37th member of Iona’s 1,000 point club.
Siena placed four players in double figures, led by 18 from freshman Nico Clareth. Brett Bisping scored 16 along with nine rebounds. Lavon Long added 16 while Javion Ogunyemi posted 13.
The Gaels advance to play Monmouth in the MAAC championship game Monday at 7:00 pm on ESPN. The teams split the season’s two meetings, with each winning on the other’s home floor. Monmouth won a 110-102 shootout in New Rochelle while Iona got revenge 83-67 in West Long Branch.
Here are three thoughts from Iona’s semifinal win over Siena:
1.) Home court is overrated. Despite much ballyhoo about the MAAC tournament returning to the Times Union Center, Siena’s home court, the Saints’ support didn’t hold much sway over the flow of the game. Though Iona head coach Tim Cluess hasn’t been a fan of the return to TUC, he has ousted Siena from the last two tournaments.
In fact, Iona improved to a perfect 8-0 against Siena in the MAAC tournament including 6-0 in Albany.
“It was important [to get the hot start],” Cluess said. “Our guys wanted to jump on them right from the start and hopefully quiet the crowd early.”
The Gaels’ hot start held the crowd of 5,722 (mostly Siena fans – and down from a crowd of 6,978 Saturday), as well as the Saints themselves in check. In truth, Iona never really lost control of the action and had a much easier time of surviving than they did in their 74-71 quarterfinal win last year.
The Gaels led for over 36 of the game’s 40 minutes while Siena held the lead for less than a minute. Iona built as much as a 14 point lead, which is the margin they took into halftime, while Siena led by no more than two points, including the game’s first bucket.
2.) The Saints will be back. Siena graduates just two players from a team that won 21 games this season. Better yet for the Saints’ prospects, those two players, Ryan Oliver and Imoh Silas, average just 7.2 ppg and 0.7 ppg respectively.
A massive junior class including Bisping, Ogunyemi, Long, and Marquis Wright is set to take over leadership of the team. For Bisping and Wright, the leadership role has been there this year as well, as both were named team captains for the 2015-16 season.
Perhaps one of the biggest returners will be the freshman sensation Clareth. The league’s Sixth Man of the Year led Siena with 18 points and shot 4-for-7 from behind the arc. Clareth previously led the Saints with 20 points in their 81-78 win over the Gaels in New Rochelle earlier this season and has drawn inspiration from English as he develops into one of the league’s best guards.
“You can just tell when he’s out there he’s calm,” Clareth said of English. “He’s been there before, and he’s really composed. One day I’ll be like that.”
The good news for Siena fans is that the Saints aren’t done playing ball this season. After the game, head coach Jimmy Patsos revealed Siena will take part in a postseason tournament, likely the CIT or CBI.
“We’re going to play some more basketball,” Patsos said. “We don’t know what tournament we’re going in, we don’t know where we’re going, but we will play more basketball.”
3.) Jordan Washington was a non-factor for Iona, but it didn’t hurt them. The Gaels’ junior forward has had plenty of experience with foul trouble in his first season with Iona, but had perhaps his worst game of the year on Sunday.
Washington ended the night with just two points and four fouls in just six minutes of play. But where Iona’s most impressive victory of the night may have been was on the glass, where Washington corralled just one rebound.
Despite Siena boasting one of the most talented frontcourts in the conference that has the Saints ranked second in the league and 17th in the nation with 40.7 rebounds per game, Iona finished even with them on the glass at 35 apiece.
“I think all the guys rebounding, from our guards to our bigs,” Cluess said was the reason for success on the boards. “It was a team rebounding effort. That was huge.”
Williams’ 11 boards led all players and in total eight of the ten Gaels to see the floor nabbed at least one rebound. Iona’s aggressiveness on the glass will certainly lead to greater dividends if Washington can avoid foul trouble on Monday night.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.