Albany, N.Y. – For the third time in five years, Iona is headed to the NCAA Tournament.
The Gaels knocked off top-seeded Monmouth 79-76 Monday night at the Times Union Center to claim the MAAC’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
Monmouth and Iona split the regular season series with each team winning on the other’s home court. The Hawks 110-102 win in New Rochelle January 15 remains one of the most entertaining games of the college basketball season.
For a time, the MAAC championship game was shaping up more like Iona’s defensive-minded 83-67 win in West Long Branch February 19, but then the shots started falling.
Near the end of the first half, with Iona leading 23-17, the teams exchanged six 3-pointers over a three minute span. Five came from the Monmouth side, including two from Je’lon Hornbeak within 38 seconds to kick off the run and a pair from Micah Seaborn.
Hornbeak enjoyed a breakout performance, shooting a perfect 7-for-7 from the field including a 5-for-5 mark from 3-point range. The junior led all scorers with 20 points and earned a spot on the all-tournament team.
Here are three thoughts from Iona’s win over Monmouth in the MAAC Championship game.
1.) For Monmouth, a long week of waiting begins. The Hawks finish the season 27-7 including road wins over UCLA, Iona, Georgetown, Rutgers and neutral site victories over Notre Dame and USC. Monmouth remains in the conversation for the MAAC’s first at-large bid to the Tournament since Iona earned an invitation in 2012.
“I’ve believed that all along,” Monmouth coach King Rice stated when asked if his team should earn an at-large bid to the Tournament. “I would love to be able to coach in the NCAA Tournament. I think our kids have earned the right to continue, but I don’t get a vote. We’re just going to be ready to play if we get called.”
That Iona team arguably had a weaker resume than this Monmouth team. As the Hawks enter the waiting period between today and Selection Sunday, they can look at that year’s Gael squad which finished the season 25-7 after getting bounced by Fairfield 85-75 in the conference semifinals. Iona earned road wins over Saint Joseph’s, LIU Brooklyn, Denver, and Richmond that season.
“I definitely think they deserve [an at-large],” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said. “With the year they’ve had, I expect them to get in.”
2.) Iona’s forwards got the job done. Jordan Washington played just 20 combined minutes in the Gaels’ first two games of the tournament, but turned it around in a big way Monday night. The junior forward earned a spot on the all-tournament team with a 15 point, 13 rebound performance in the championship game.
“A.J. [English] came up to me in the hotel and told me to play hard, keep playing, rebound, and just do what I’ve got to do,” Washington said. “That’s why he recruited me here. He told me to come here and win him a championship. That’s what I told him I was going to do: win him a championship before he leaves.”
Washington became the third Gael of the tournament to record a double-double, with one coming in every game. English posted 20 points and 10 rebounds in the quarterfinal win over Canisius while Isaiah Williams scored 23 and grabbed 11 rebounds in Sunday’s semifinal against Siena.
It was Williams who carried Iona through a rough first half in which they shot just 32.3% from the floor. The senior forward knocked down two quick 3-pointers in the game’s first four minutes and led the Gaels with eight points on 3-for-4 shooting at the half. He finished the game with 17.
Aaron Rountree, who has been the first option off the bench when Washington runs into foul trouble, had that burden lifted off his shoulders with Washington’s big game, but still brought energy to the court. The graduate transfer finished with six points, five rebounds, and three blocks.
Rountree was also responsible for the final margin of victory, knocking down two key free throws with 17 seconds left after Monmouth had cut the lead to one.
3.) The guards came through in the big moments. English led the Gaels with 19 points, but had far from his best performance. The senior guard shot just 4-for-13 and 3-for-10 from behind the arc, but often deferred to teammates, racking up five assists.
However, when his team needed him to come through, English was there to answer the call. After a pair of Justin Robinson free throws knotted the score at 71 with just 2:08 remaining, English immediately responded with a contested jumper which ended up giving the Gaels the lead for good.
English got the job started, but it was backcourt mate Deyshonee Much who came up with the biggest play of the game, an old-fashioned three-point play with 53 seconds remaining that put Iona up by five and brought the crowd to their feet.
Monmouth had an opportunity to tie the game with 13 seconds remaining, but English came up with the steal off Deon Jones in the waning seconds to secure the victory and Iona’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2013.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.