Monday, January 23, 2012

Biggest Surprise Yet: Siena Upends Mighty Iona

This season's Iona team was supposed to be one for the MAAC ages, possessing a perimeter group maybe as deep and talented as the conference has ever seen, and also having the requisite inside beast.

Its scoring average prior to play Monday night was second-best nationally. It had the national leader in assists (senior guard Scott Machado) and an inside scorer (senior forward Mike Glover) so effective that his field-goal percentage was second-best nationally.

On Monday it played against an opponent that it just demolished, 95-59, 20 days earlier and started Monday's game by taking a 20-2 lead after the game's first 4:33.

So, how did this happen Monday night at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. ... Siena 65, Iona 62?

It happened when Machado picked up three first half fouls (one a technical when he stood up and woofed from the bench), was limited to 25 minutes and dished out just three assists.

It happened when the Gaels were held to 34.4 percent shooting and just 23 second-half points.

And, it happened when Siena went on a 19-5 run over the game's final nine minutes to turn an 11-point deficit into a three-point victory.

It also happened to be the most-surprising result in the conference this season, by far, a team with a 3-5 league record entering play Monday night knocking off the supposed team-for-the-ages.

It happened when Siena got a lot of basketball from almost everyone on its depleted roster, not the least of it coming from junior forward O.D. Anosike (17 points, 15 rebounds for a national-best 15th straight double-double), senior guard Kyle Downey (16 points, including 10 in the final 10 minutes) and freshman swingman Rob Poole (14 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and one turnover).

It happened when the usually offensively gifted Gaels managed to shoot just 21-of-61 (34.4 percent) in the game, just 9-of-31 (29 percent) in the second half and just 2-of-12 (16.7 percent) in the final nine minutes.

"This is my best and the team's best win since I've been head coach here," said Saints' second-year head coach Mitch Buonaguro. "Our resiliency is something I'm really proud of. Everyone counted us out. Very few people thought we'd win this game, but I did and so did our players.

"For our team to bounce back after two difficult road losses (at Loyola and at Manhattan) and play and beat arguably a top-30 team ... I'm very proud of our guys."

Said Iona coach Tim Cluess: "Siena out-executed us all night. We missed layups, foul shots, jump shots. They made their shots and we didn't. They just outplayed us."

Down the stretch, Siena also made plays and Iona didn't, particularly the one that mattered most.

Down 63-62 with 26 seconds left, Iona got its hands on the ball when the Saints committed a violation trying to in-bounds the ball.

But, the Gaels' designed play  never came to pass as junior guard Momo Jones drove into the teeth of Siena's defense and missed badly.

"That wasn't the shot we wanted ... Momo driving the lane into three defenders," admitted Cluess. "But sometimes kids are kids. He needed to know there was a lot of time left when he shot (about 13 seconds), and he didn't need to rush. It's a learning experience for him.

"We've also got to learn that if the other team is on a roll we can't catch the first catch and just throw it up. It's getting late in the season, and if we don't figure that out pretty quickly we can be in trouble."

What does the loss mean for Iona? Within the framework of the season, not that much. At the halfway point the Gaels are still 7-2 in MAAC play and 15-5 overall. They're still  in first place, albeit in a three-way tie with Loyola and Manhattan.

But it also means this: Iona's weaknesses are showing. When the Gaels don't hit perimeter shots and aren't looking for 6-7 inside presence Mike Glover enough, they're vulnerable.

It also means that, with five overall losses already and 10 more regular-season games remaining, the Gaels probably need to run the table until the conference tournament's championship game in order to retain a chance for an NCAA at-large berth should it fail to capture the league's automatic berth.

And, it means that these Gaels probably have likely lost their chance to claim a spot on the throne of MAAC royalty in a historical sense. Two conference losses at the halfway mark don't get you into the conversation with the 1989-90 La Salle team (16-0, 30-2 overall), or the Siena teams of 2009-10 (17-1,, 27-7), and 2008-09 (16-2, 27-8) or, probably. even with the 2003-04 Manhattan team (16-2, 25-6).

For Siena?

"It shows that we're a force to be reckoned with," said the Saints' Downey. "Down 18 to Iona early ... it was real hard to come back from that. But I think this will have people realizing that we can play with anyone."

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