Iona is dancing once again.
The Gaels took down Fairfield 83-71 in the MAAC championship game Monday night at the Times Union Center in Albany to become the first team to win three consecutive MAAC titles since Siena did so from 2008-2010.
Roland Griffin turned in the game of his life with a career high 29 points on 9-15 shooting with eight rebounds and a personal-best four blocked shots. The junior forward also went a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe, becoming the first Gael to be flawless at the line with that many attempts since Schadrac Casimir went 12-12 against Siena on Feb. 6, 2015.
“The whole year, my coaches and teammates were consistently telling me to stay aggressive, protect the basket, and just make plays,” Griffin said. “That’s all I’ve tried to do game in and game out.”
Griffin is wrapping up his first of two seasons with the Gaels, and has steadily become one of the team’s go-to players. He joined Iona after a year on the JUCO circuit at Midland College in Texas, and played his freshman season in 2015-16 at Illinois State.
“You look at Roland, and I think has so much potential in his game,” head coach Tim Cluess added. “I think we believe in him more than he believes in himself at times, but boy did he believe in himself tonight.”
Graduate guard Zach Lewis capped off his tournament with a flourish, as he poured in 20 points for the second time in three days while adding seven rebounds, five assists, and four steals. Over the course of the three-game tournament, Lewis averaged 18.3 ppg, 5.3 rebounds per game, and 3.3 assists per game.
After missing the final two games of the regular season with an illness, Lewis dominated in Albany and was named the MAAC tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“It was great when he came back from being sick,” Cluess said of Lewis. “I think he came back healthy and a little rested, and just realized ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to win,’ and that’s all he cared about.”
Junior guard Rickey McGill, who has now enjoyed a trip to the NCAA Tournament in each of his collegiate seasons, struggled through the first two games of the tournament but redeemed himself with a 10 point, eight rebound, four assist performance with another two steals to his credit.
Iona has now won 20 games every season during Cluess’ eight year tenure as head coach. Through a tumultuous season in which many doubted the Gaels’ could again reach the pinnacle of the league, the term persevered to once again come out on top and head to the Big Dance.
Perhaps the lowest point this group reached came with a dismal 72-50 loss at home to Monmouth on Feb. 8. That performance marked the fewest points scored by the Gaels under Cluess, and gave many reason to doubt their ability. However, their response to that moment fueled their rise to the top.
“They just all came together and they all realized they were good enough to win,” Cluess said. “I think the players started holding themselves responsible for how they practice, for how they spent their time away from basketball, and more importantly when they’re on the court, responsibilities on the court. It wasn’t okay to make as many mental mistakes as we were making any longer and guys held themselves to a higher standard.”
Fairfield was led by Tyler Nelson, who connected on 6-8 three-pointers en route to 25 points. The Stags’ senior left the game in the waning seconds to a joyous ovation and a prolonged hug from head coach Sydney Johnson. With a postseason possibility in the CIT or CBI still up in the air, Nelson stands as Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer with 2,172 career points.
For all of Iona’s success, the Gaels have yet to pick up a win in the NCAA Tournament. They will have another opportunity in the weeks ahead, and will receive their opponent this coming Sunday. For now, it’s time to enjoy a well-deserved victory and a little piece of history.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.