Iona has still yet to lose a regular season series in the Tim Cluess era. The Gaels led throughout and held off conference foe Fairfield 96-89 Friday night, earning revenge for a 93-87 loss earlier in the month in Bridgeport.
Senior forward Jordan Washington rebounded from a lackluster effort last time out, leading the Gaels with 30 points against the Stags after posting just four points in 12 minutes of play Tuesday night at Manhattan.
“Jordan had probably his two best practices since we’ve had him here the last two days,” Cluess said of Washington. “I think the last game helped him to start to develop and realize that he has to do a lot more than what he’s been doing for our team to be successful.”
Washington’s total matched a season-high set previously in a win over Ohio University in December.
The Gaels picked up where they left on from their win at Manhattan as they opened the game with a 10-0 run, eventually building a 24 point lead with 7:38 left in the first half. Iona shot 59.4% from the field in the first half, and finished the game scoring at a stellar rate of 1.26 points per possession.
In the midst of Iona’s first half blitz, attention quickly turned away from the scoreboard and to the area in front of the Fairfield bench. Midway through the opening frame, the Stags’ Curtis Cobb suffered an apparent head injury after colliding with Iona’s E.J. Crawford after a defensive stand.
“I hope he’s alright, because he hit me kind of hard at first,” Crawford said, pointing to his chest. “I’m going to pray for him and hope he’s alright.”
Cobb lay on the floor under evaluation for approximately ten minutes before being loaded onto a stretcher and taken to the locker room. From there, he was taken to Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital under precautionary measures.
“It was kind of an awkward play and he fully extended and took a hit,” head coach Sydney Johnson said of Cobb’s injury. “I don’t think it was a dirty play at all, just unfortunate. We’ve got to figure out what kind of condition he’s in for the long term.”
Seemingly stunned from a horrendous start exacerbated by the loss of their second-leading scorer, Fairfield still refused to give in. The Stags closed the first half on a 21-9 run and had an opportunity to close the gap to single digits, but Tyler Nelson’s long 3-point attempt at the buzzer missed its mark.
Despite the Stags’ strong close to the half, Iona restored order with a reprisal of their hot start. The Gaels’ opened the second half on a 16-4 run, quickly pushing their lead back out to 24.
Even still, Fairfield would not go quietly. The Stags began to heat up from behind the arc, responding with a trio of 3-pointers and eventually cutting the Iona lead down to six with 3:16 remaining.
With Iona desperate for someone to come through with a big shot, it was one of its youngest members who answered the call. The Stags’ momentum was halted when Crawford, a freshman with 20 games under his belt, found himself open in the left corner and buried a 3-pointer to give the Gaels vital breathing room.
“That was a big three,” Cluess said of Crawford’s shot. “From the first game against [Fairfield] to this game, I thought he was a freshman in his eyes and the way he went out to that first game a little bit nervous. This game he played a lot more under control. The game slowed down for him and he just let it come to him. I think as he does that, he’s been more and more like an Iona player and done a really good job for us.”
Iona’s exceptional free throw shooting led the way home, as the Gaels finished the game 20-23 from the charity stripe.
Three other Gaels joined Washington in double-figures. Jon Severe came through with 16 points while Crawford and Sam Cassell Jr. each added 13.
Despite the Gaels’ offense hitting a groove reminiscent of recent squads which set the standard in the MAAC, defense remains a sticking point for Cluess’ crew. While Iona enjoyed its third 90+ point effort in their last four games, Fairfield managed 54 second half points and finished the game at 1.17 points per possession.
“We have to be able to play both ends for 40 minutes, and we didn’t do that tonight,” Cluess added.
Fairfield placed two players above the 20-point plateau, led by Nelson’s team-leading 27. Jerry Johnson Jr. made his second consecutive start and came through with a career-high 26 while Matija Milin and Amadou Sidibe added 14 and 10 respectively.
“I really like these guys a lot, and I think we have a nice basketball team,” Johnson added. “While I know my belief in them is very high, I think at times they’ve kind of forgotten quite honestly how good they are and what’s gotten us here, which is playing together and playing hard. Right now it’s been choppy, but it’s a long season so it’ll come.”
Fairfield, now in the midst of a four game skid, must gather together before a trip to league-leader Monmouth Sunday afternoon. Iona next returns to action with a home contest against Quinnipiac Monday night as the Bobcats seek to become the first team to complete a season sweep of the Gaels.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.