After losing to Manhattan in the MAAC Championship in back-to-back years, Iona finally got over the hump Monday, outlasting Monmouth, 79-76, to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Monmouth led 34-30 at halftime and was 21-0 on the season when leading at the break. Iona, however, refused to quit and hit several big shots in the final minutes to get the win.
“It’s been that way all year,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “They just don’t quit, and I’m really, really proud of them. With all the injuries we had early on – losing two starters (Kelvin Amayo and Schadrac Casimir) for the year and other guys being out – our guys just continued to work hard and they did it again tonight. I’m really proud of them.”
Iona displayed remarkable balance, with four starters scoring between 15 and 19 points. A.J. English scored 19, while Jordan Washington had 15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
Iona (22-10) started the season 4-6 and 10-9 but has won 12 of its last 13 games.
“At the beginning, I thought it was going to be a really, really long year, especially when we lost those players about three or four games into the season,” Cluess said. “We had a lot of new guys to build in, and then A.J. English goes out with a hand injury and a surgery and he misses games, and we had several other players miss games for other injuries.”
Iona gave up 98+ points twice during a rough four-game stretch in late-January. The Gales have since allowed 68.5 points per game.
“I’ll give our guys credit,” Cluess said. “They took the extra work we put on them at that point – let’s put it that way – and decided to just come and work hard every day. We said ‘Whatever happens, let’s just give it our best effort every day. Win, lose or draw, we can live with that.’ The guys started doing it and we started really concentrating on the defensive end more since we lost a couple of offensive players. It really brought our team together and again, I’m just really proud of them. I’m lucky to coach them.”
Iona will likely face a heavyweight in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but if the Gaels can make at least 11 threes – as they did against Monmouth – perhaps they can hang around.
“On a night that we shoot the ball well, we’re dangerous,” Cluess said. “I told our kids to enjoy it tonight, we’ll meet with them (Tuesday) and then we’ll get ready to get back to work by Wednesday and find out Sunday who we’re going to play.”