ALBANY, N.Y. – Ho-hum, Iona is headed to another MAAC title game. Just business as usual for Tim Cluess and company.
The Gaels took down second-seeded Saint Peter’s 73-65 Sunday night in the semifinals of the MAAC tournament contested at the Times Union Center.
It is the fifth consecutive league championship game appearance for Cluess’ Iona squad and the sixth of his seven-year tenure in New Rochelle. The Gaels cut down the nets in 2013 and 2016, and will look to repeat as league champions when they visit Siena Monday night at 9:00.
Should the Gaels win a second consecutive league title, it would be the third such occurrence in school history and the eighth all-time string of running league championships put up by a MAAC squad.
Iona captured back-to-back MAAC championships in 1984 and 1985, then repeated the feat between 2000 and 2001. The program already owns the league record for conference championships with nine, and their sixteen title game appearances also mark a league-best.
Iona has just three players on the current roster who appeared in last year’s championship game. Jordan Washington, Deyshonee Much, and Rickey McGill are the only holdovers from the team that won it all, but they have been the backbone of the Gaels’ return run.
“I think it’s really good that we have so much experience in those games,” Cluess said of the team’s championship experience. “Our guys can just come in and they take it like they’ve taken every other game. It’s the next team up, and you have to be ready to play.”
The Peacocks’ defense entered true lockdown mode midway through the first half. Following Schadrac Casimir’s jumper to make it a 20-16 Iona lead with 8:49 remaining in the period, Saint Peter’s put together an 11-minute stretch without conceding a field goal.
The next shot knocked down by an Iona player was Jon Severe’s jumper 2:18 after the halftime break, but by that point Saint Peter’s had imposed its will on the game and built a nine point lead, their largest of the night. The John Dunne special was in full effect and the high-flying Gaels had been shut down by one of the nation’s ten best defenses.
Not so fast.
Iona suddenly hit its stride following Severe’s bucket. His two points kicked off a 10-0 barrage over the next 90 second that gave the Gaels a lead they would never relinquish. In the blink of an eye, the fruit of the Peacocks’ patient defensive effort had been laid by the wayside.
The Gaels eventually pushed that run to a 17-0 advantage, morphing their nine-point deficit into an eight-point lead with 14:27 remaining.
“They got us in transition a little bit in that second half,” Saint Peter’s head coach John Dunne said after the game. “We were right where we wanted to be a couple minutes into the second half, and then it just, that flurry, it got away from us.”
Iona pushed its lead to as much as 11 with just under two minutes to play. The Peacocks got back within four on a Trevis Wyche 3-pointer with just 51 seconds left to play, but that was as close as they would come. The Gaels knocked down nine of ten crunch-time free throws to keep Saint Peter’s at bay and seal the victory.
Senior forward Jordan Washington paced all players with 22 points, while three other Gaels achieved double-figures. Jon Severe, Deyshonee Much, and Sam Cassell Jr. added 12, 11, and 10 respectively.
The Gaels own a seven-game winning streak over championship opponent Siena inside the Times Union Center including a 77-66 decision in late January, but the Saints handed Iona an 81-79 loss on the Gaels’ home court at the Hynes Athletic Center eleven days later.
“Both teams right now are going in with a clean slate,” Cluess said of Monday night. “Championship game, both teams are going to go out and fight their hearts out I’m sure, and hopefully put a good game out there. I’m confident if our guys play well, then we’ll have a really good chance to win.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.