Only two teams have ever captured three consecutive MAAC titles. When Iona takes the court at 7:00 Monday night at the Times Union Center in Albany to face Fairfield in the MAAC championship game, Tim Cluess’ squad will seek to match the accomplishment of the 1988-90 La Salle Explorers and 2008-10 Siena Saints.
“It would be a great thing for Iona basketball and Iona College,” Cluess said about the prospect of winning three in a row. “It’s what we’re really striving for and we’re hoping we have a chance to tie history.”
The Gaels have taken the last two titles over Monmouth in 2016 and Siena in 2017, and have now appeared in six consecutive MAAC title games. Iona now squares off against Fairfield in tournament play for the first time since 2012, when they fell as a #1 seed to the fourth-ranked Stags and last failed to reach the league championship game.
Iona and Fairfield split the season series this year with the Gaels winning 84-65 on Jan. 7 behind a career-high 32 points from senior Deyshonee Much. The Stags earned revenge with a 103-100 overtime win in Bridgeport on Jan. 29 when Tyler Nelson went for 32 to overcome three Gaels who eclipsed the 20-point mark.
Although the Gaels have endured a roller-coaster season, one individual has stepped up during the stretch run to help lead Iona to this point. Zach Lewis, who joined Iona as a grad transfer from UMass this past offseason, ranks sixth on the Gaels with 8.8 ppg this season, but has come alive during the MAAC tournament.
Lewis led all scorers with a season-high 23 points and pulled down a career-best nine rebounds in Iona’s quarterfinal win over Manhattan, than came through with 12 points including nine in the second half as Iona stormed back to overcome a 14-point deficit to take down Saint Peter’s 65-62 in Sunday’s semifinal.
“Zach doesn’t want to go home,” Cluess said. “He’s a senior who, kind of like AJ English this time of year, he’s trying to will our team to victory.”
The Windsor, Connecticut native missed the Gaels’ final two regular season games with an illness, but during that time rediscovered what it means to be a leader as he watched his team split their final pair with a win over Manhattan before falling to Rider in the season finale.
“I just really don’t want to lose,” Lewis said. “I watched the game against Rider. It was tough the way they went out the last game of the season. We just needed a leader. We needed somebody to step up, and so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
His head coach is one individual grateful Lewis has rediscovered a trait lacking all season long.
“I think he found a new life within him and a new sense of urgency that we were hoping would come out of him a little sooner,” Cluess said of Lewis. “It was great to see, yesterday on the bench he was yelling at a player on our team. That’s the first time anyone on our team has yelled at another player the entire year. It was great to see, and it woke up the entire team.”
Lewis owns previous MAAC tournament experience as a member of Canisius for two seasons from 2013-2015, and has seemingly tapped into those reserves at this most critical juncture of this season. His performance thus far has helped carry Iona to the brink of history as it stands 40 minutes away from continuing its season and prolonging Lewis’ career.
“Knowing that this is the end of my college career, of course you get a little more adrenaline and a little more excitement,” Lewis said. “It’s crazy to be this close, but that just makes me know that it’s going to be that much harder. As close as you are, it’s just going to get harder, so it’s going to be a battle for 40 minutes.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.