Iona did not have a fourth-year senior to lead their charge back to the NCAA Tournament. So instead, they turned to a freshman.
In a game rife with critical baskets, and the first overtime in the MAAC championship since 2010, it was the Gaels’ rookie who came through with the most important of the night.
The Gaels entered the final minute of overtime clinging to a two-point lead they had just been provided on a pair of Jordan Washington free throws. Thirteen seconds later, Siena’s Marquis Wright knotted the game for the sixteenth time in the night with a layup, setting the stage for Crawford’s biggest moment.
The Hartford native coaxed a driving layup through the net, giving Iona an 85-83 lead with just 28 seconds remaining.
“There’s probably not a more confident kid on our team,” Cluess said of Crawford, who has come through with clutch baskets throughout the year. “He’s only a freshman, but that’s just how he feels about himself. I was really happy to see that play, and he was under control the whole time. He didn’t force something. He found a little gap, and he had the guts to go in and make a big play.”
On the following possession, Iona’s defense forced Siena to run 22 seconds off the clock before settling for a deep jumper from sophomore Nico Clareth that stuttered off the left side of the rim and into the hands of Washington. The senior knocked down a pair of free throws with just one second left on the clock to seal the victory and send Iona to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
“Oh man, when I’m at the free throw line all I’m thinking about is my grandmother,” Washington said. “I’m doing this for my grandmother honestly speaking. When I’m at the free throw line, I say her name three times, because I take three dribbles.”
With the game already out of reach, Wright drilled a half-court shot at the final buzzer to provide the final margin of 87-86 and send Vegas into a tizzy.
In the past, Iona could lean on the experience of players like Scott Machado, Sean Armand, and A.J. English to power runs to the NCAA Tournament. Those four-year guards had become the cornerstone of Cluess’ squads, but 2017’s iteration of the Gaels lacked such a presence.
That is not to say Iona lacks experienced players. The Gaels’ squad contains four seniors: Washington, Taylor Bessick, Sam Cassell Jr., and Jon Severe. The latter three are in their fifth year of eligibility, while Washington attended Indian Hills Community College for his first two years of play.
However, none of those players have suited up for more than two seasons in New Rochelle. In fact, no player on the entire roster has played more than two seasons for Cluess. Redshirt sophomore Schadrac Casimir is the elder-statesman of the team, but played just four games last season before applying for and being granted a medical hardship waiver.
Casimir, who Cluess had expressed doubts about playing on back-to-back nights, came through with a double-digit performance Monday night. The Stamford native knocked down half of his shots and contributed 10 points in 34 minutes of play.
“Schadrac gutted it out,” Cluess said of Casimir. “I don’t know if it was a regular season game would he have played, but he just told me ‘no matter what, I’m playing and I can rest tomorrow.’”
At the end of it all, the experiment worked, and the Gaels are headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the eleventh time in school history.
“We had a lot of guys that were new, and a lot of guys who were injured last year who couldn’t play in the tournament,” Cluess said of his group. “Here’s some kids who maybe didn’t have the opportunities they wanted in other places, and we’ve been able to find success with them, so I’m really proud of them.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.