ALBANY, N.Y. – For those considering Iona might not be at its best this weekend, you can put those thoughts to bed.
While some other squads have gotten off to sluggish starts this weekend, the Gaels put together an impressive debut in the 2017 MAAC tournament with an 88-70 demolition of the sixth-seeded Rider Broncs. Sophomore Rickey McGill poured in a career-high 25 points and padded the stat sheet with six assists, five rebounds, and four steals.
The Gaels had finished the regular season as one of the league’s two best teams five of the last six years. They captured the MAAC regular season title in three of those years, but in 2016-17 the Gaels have had to settle for third place in the final rankings.
Iona’s 12-8 league record marked the most MAAC losses for Tim Cluess’ squad since 2012-13 when they accumulated seven in an 18-game season. The bright side? They entered that year’s conference tournament as the #4 seed and won the whole thing, earning their second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament.
With the Gaels headed to yet another MAAC semifinal – this one against the vaunted defense of Saint Peter’s – here are three thoughts from Saturday night’s first quarterfinal.
Casimir On Repeat
Earlier this week, Cluess had expressed concern that Casimir could bounce back and contribute on back to back days. The 2015 MAAC Rookie of the Year and All-MAAC Second Team member as a freshman, Casimir underwent multiple surgeries in the offseason after redshirting the majority of 2015-16 and has been slow to regain his form this year.
“I don’t think we can look at him for major minutes if we go past day one,” Cluess said of Casimir during a league conference call Monday. “As of now, he’s looking like he’s physically not able to play in that situation for major minutes.”
The Connecticut native averaged a stellar 14.3 ppg during his rookie campaign, but this season has been limited to 6.5 per contest. Known as one of the Gaels’ best 3-point shooters despite being listed at just 5-foot-10, Casimir’s percentage behind the arc is identical to his freshman season (42%), but he hoisted up 139 fewer opportunities this year.
Casimir reached double figures just seven times this season, but came through with one of his best efforts of the year Saturday night. The Gaels’ sharpshooter was the game’s second-leading scorer with 22 points on 6-10 shooting with a 4-6 mark from long distance. As a team, Iona shot 46% from 3-point range.
It was Casimir whom the Gaels relied upon to keep their cushion throughout the night against the Broncs. He buried a 3-pointer to push the team’s lead to 22 in the first half, its largest of the night. It was again Casimir who stepped up with a triple when Rider cut the lead to 10 late in the half, and he delivered from long distance once more when the Broncs trimmed the lead to just seven early in the second stanza.
In the wake of his performance, Casimir gave his coach the green light to put him back in the lineup for Sunday’s semifinal against the best defensive team in the league.
“He just told me outside that he feels 100% and he’s ready for this weekend, so I expect a repeat performance tomorrow from him,” Cluess said. “No pressure.”
Rickey McGill was familiar with playing in the Times Union Center before enrolling at Iona, and since joining the Gaels has put together some of his better performances over the building’s hardwood.
McGill set a new career high Saturday night, but his previous personal best came earlier this year in the Gaels’ yearly trip to Albany. When Iona took on Siena for the first time this season on January 27, McGill shot 8-14 from the field and was a perfect 5-5 from the charity stripe. He finished the night with 22 total points, and added six rebounds along with two steals for good measure.
Prior to his time at Iona, McGill also suited up in the Times Union Center while playing high school ball at Spring Valley High.
“In high school we played here at least two or three times,” McGill said. “I’m a little familiar with the rims, and the ball was just going in.”
The Gaels have advanced to the semifinal round of every conference tournament contested with Cluess on the sidelines. Since taking over the reins in New Rochelle prior to the 2010-11 season, Cluess has led Iona to four consecutive MAAC title games and captured the league championship in 2013 and 2016.
In fact, going back to 2006 and including Cluess’ four years at Division II C.W. Post, his teams have missed out on just one conference final appearance. That came when the 2011-12 Gaels were ousted in the semifinal round of the league tournament by Fairfield.
“I’m really fortunate to coach good players who play really hard and play well together and really strive to win,” Cluess said of his team’s consistent efforts in the most pressure-packed time of the year. “We’ve been fortunate enough because of how good our players are, to be able to do that”
Cluess and the Gaels will get a chance to reach their fifth consecutive MAAC tournament final Sunday evening when they take on the Peacocks at 7:00 p.m.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.