Saturday, March 23, 2013

Iona Gets Close, Can't Sustain Against Potent Ohio St.

It was billed as the classic matchup between Iona's high-flying offense and Ohio State's punishing defense.

Both of those aspects of play were on display in Friday night's NCAA tournament game. The problem for the Gaels, though, was Ohio supplied not only the defense but the offense, as well in earning a 95-70 victory over Iona.

Iona entered the contest as the nation's second-highest scoring team (80.7 points per game), but the Buckeyes out-Gaeled the Gaels by scoring a season's high 95 in a game that got out of reach early enough for the winners to play the last 10 minutes with mostly its reserves.

High flying? That was Ohio State on this night, reaching rarefied air space that Iona's players couldn't physically match, if the view from in front of your correspondent's 42-inch TV could be believed.

Defense? The Buckeyes held Iona to just 35.4 percent from the field, and to just 21.4 percent (6-of-28) from beyond the three-point line. The Gaels probably needed to have made twice as many treys as they did to have a chance to keep things close, but they struggled for most of the contest even finding good looks from beyond the bonus arc.

Iona's primary individual standout Lamont "Momo" Jones was held to just nine points (3-of-14 shooting) in his heralded head-to-head match-up with the Buckeyes' defensive-minded guard Aaron Craft.

Jones twice got away for baskets (an early fast-break layup that gave Iona a 6-5 lead; and a transition 3-pointer that cut the winners' lead to 30-18 late in the first half), but managed just one basket against his Ohio State counterpart, getting past Craft for a late first-half drive. He had just two second-half points, both on free throws.

For Iona, it was a second-straight disappointing trip to Dayton. A year ago, in a First Four game also at the University of Dayton Arena, Iona had a 25-point lead against BYU after 15 minutes before losing.

Iona coach Tim Cluess, in a recent interview, offered that it was the best 15 minutes of basketball anyone played in last season's NCAA event. And, there are few who could argue that assessment. But, after those first 15 minutes BYU dominated inside with its height and bulk to come all the way back and beat the Gaels.

And, back at Dayton again this year, the Gaels also had an impressive stretch ... although not one that last for 15 minutes against an opponent that was just clearly significantly better.

Yet, after a 22-2 Ohio State run that had the contest on the verge of blow-out territory, 28-7, with 9:27 remaining, the Gaels played nearly eight minutes of the style MAAC opponents had seen from them in larger doses for most of the year.

Junior guard Sean Armand got that stretch started with a three-pointer. Sophomore big man David Laury followed with an inside bucket and, then, Jones got back-to-back buckets, his driving layup and transition trey.

Laury then made a pair of free throws and a mid-range jumper. Taaj Ridley got two free throws, followed by another jumper by Laury.

Armand made another trey, added two free throws on the Gaels' next possession and reserve guard Tre Bowman converted a fast-break layup.

When that stretch was over, on 11 of 12 possessions to cut the winnes' lead to 37-33 with 1:31 remaining in the half.

And, then, Ohio State scored the last six points of the half to push its lead back to 10 and tacked on the first nine of the second half to hold a 52-33 lead barely two minutes after the intermission. The Gaels never got it closer than 12 again, and their deficit went as high as 30 (88-58) with 4:30 remaining.

Outside of Iona's eight minutes of superlative late first-half play, the Gaels shot 15-of-54 (27.7 percent) from the floor and 3-of-25 (12.0 percent) from three-point range.

Ohio State's Craft was superlative on the defensive end, as expected, with six steals including two direct pocket-picks of Jones in open-court situations.

The first of those was a for-the-ages highly sequence in which he poked the ball away from Jones and, then, launched himself at the loose ball which he, while flying towards the scorers' table managed to tip to a teammate. The play resulted in a fast-break dunk for the winners that stretched the Buckeyes' 37-33 lead to six and seemingly reversed the game's momentum.

"We ran into a buzzsaw," Iona coach Tim Cluess told reporters afterwards. "We knew, in order to even be in the game, we'd have to play our best game of the year and we didn't.

"They were jumping above anyone on our team ... and finishing a lot of dunks and a lot of things we can't even get up in the air to get near."

The Gaels finish 20-14 on the season and played in the NCAA's for the second straight year. Jones, who entered the contest as the nation's third-leading scorer; and role-player Ridley are the only two seniors the program loses.

There is enough returning to expect Iona to be contending for another NCAA berth a year from now and, along with Manhattan and Niagara, will be among the preseason favorites to win the MAAC's regular-season title in 2013-14.

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