Last year I wrote a piece commending the incredible level of consistency Iona has maintained since current head coach Tim Cluess arrived in New Rochelle in 2010.
To no one’s surprise, that winning culture embedded at Iona continued to pay dividends this season, but the results came about in a new way than years past. So what changed for Iona this season that allowed the Gaels to reach the NCAA Tournament after falling one game short each of the previous two years?
They got knocked down.
The last two seasons, the first two under the new 20-game regular season format the MAAC adopted after the additions of Monmouth and Quinnipiac to the league, Iona won the regular season with records of 17-3 each year. In 2012, the year they earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, they won the league with a 15-3 record.
The year the Gaels last won the MAAC tournament, 2013, they finished tied for fourth at 11-7. That year they endured a stretch in which they lost six out of seven games by a combined 11 points. Three of those losses required overtime, with two going to double-OT.
This season Iona compiled an impressive 16-4 conference record, but were outpaced by Monmouth, who won their first MAAC regular season title in just their third year in the league. However, the strong record masks a team wracked with adversity.
Iona lost last year’s MAAC Rookie of the Year, preseason All-MAAC First Team selection, and possibly the team’s best shooter, Schadrac Casimir to season-ending hip surgery on January 4. After being the only Gael to appear in and start all 35 games last year, Casimir was limited to just four games this season.
The Gaels faced another key injury when star guard A.J. English suffered a hand injury in early November. English missed five games with the injury, during which time Iona went just 2-3 including a pair of losses in the South Point Holiday Classic in Las Vegas.
“They matured through the season and worked so much harder because of the things that happened to us,” Cluess said after Iona’s MAAC title game victory. “They just came together as a unit.”
English returned with a double-double against Quinnipiac on January 2, but it was at that time the Gaels began embracing a defensive identity. Following English’s return, Iona lost sophomore guard and third-leading scorer Deyshonee Much for a three game stretch, but held opponents to 66, 52, and 58 points over that timeframe, all wins.
Following a lapse of three losses in four games which brought back memories of that torrid stretch in 2013, Iona broke into February riding a streak of four games in which they held opponents to no more than 67 points.
That taxing losing streak was kicked off by a 110-102 loss to Monmouth that snapped a 26-game home winning streak and also led to the two-game suspension of forward Jordan Washington for a post-game incident.
With that new mindset and a healthy scoring corps, the Gaels were poised to finish off the run they could not cap the last two seasons. They earned revenge over Monmouth 83-67 February 19, shutting down the Hawks with their new-found defense rather than their old game of offense.
It was the mold of that second game, rather than the first, which allowed Iona to take down the Hawks once more Monday night.
“It really feels like A.J.’s freshman year to me,” Cluess said, taking in the victory Monday night and reflecting upon the 2013 title. “We struggled for a good part of that year, found ways to lose games really close, and every day the guys would come in and work hard, just like these guys did.”
Iona finished the regular season and postseason winners of 12 of their last 13 games, and now head to their first NCAA Tournament since that turbulent 2012-13 season.
Not because they were the best team. Not because they were the most talented. Because they had to fight for it.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.