Monday, March 11, 2013

Iona Men Leave No Doubt About This Year's NCAA Bid

There's no mystery this season, no waiting and hoping for an at-large invitation to the NCCA tournament on Selection Sunday this time around.

The Gaels clinched that on their own this year with enough strong second-half play to earn a 60-57 victory over Manhattan in the MAAC men's tournament's championship game Monday night at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, punching their own ticket to the "Big Dance."

A year ago Iona got upset in the semifinal-round of this event, despite winning the conference's regular-season title, and had to wait around a week to find out if its 25-7 overall record was good enough for the NCAA's selection committee.

It was then, but it wouldn't have been this year. The Gaels finished the regular season in fourth place this season and their 19-13 overall record, right now, is the first time in the past three seasons they haven't surpassed the 20-victory total.

Their RPI standing of 103 entering the game also all but would have precluded it from the NCAA's without Monday's victory.

Now, though, Iona moves on and, according to Joe Lunardi's most-recent Bracketology report for ESPN, is a probable No. 15 seed in a 16-team bracket. Lunardi projects the Gaels to play Georgetown in a first-round game, possibly in Philadelphia.

"This is a lot more meaningful than last year," admitted Iona's senior standout Momo Jones. "I mean, making the tournament is making the tournament is making the tournament. But, last year we weren't really representing the league. That was Loyola that won the three games in this tournament and, because of that, represented the league ... we just got an at-large berth."

"All season long we talked about making the tournament this year the right way," added junior guard Sean Armand. "This year we wanted to make it because we earned that spot."

Manhattan, the No. 6 regular-season finisher (14-17 overall), struggled for much of the year and was 3-6 in conference play before a late-season turnaround that took it all the way to this season's championship game.

And, Manhattan's hard-nosed defense throughout managed to keep the Jaspers on top, 35-32, with 14 minutes remaining.

But Iona, the nation's second-highest scoring team (81.3 ppg.) was not to be throttled all night and went on a 15-2 run that gave it a 47-37 advantage with 8:48 remaining.

That surge got a boost from game officials, who whistled a technical foul on Manhattan coach Steve Masiello for wandering too far out on the court while exhorting his team to play defense. Masiello had drawn a warning for wandering a few seconds earlier.

The technical resulted in two free throws by Iona's Jones that extended what was then a six-point lead to eight. And, on the winners' subsequent possession, forward Taaj Ridley drew a foul and made both free throws for the 10-point lead.

"I don't have a version," said Masiello, when asked to give his version of the technical call that appeared to complete the game's momentum turn in Iona's favor. "I was just trying to coach to coach my team. I was yelling for Emmy (Andujar) to rotate inside ... I don't have a version."

The Jaspers bot to within six, 47-41, two possessions later before Iona's 6-foot-8 center David Laury went to work with inside buckets on three consecutive possessions and Manhattan never got closer than four again until its Mohamed Koita made two free throws with a tenth of a second remaining due to a technical foul call against Iona for rushing the court to celebrate before the game was over.

The winners got a career game from reserve guard Tre Bowman, who scored 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor. Otherwise, Manhattan did a good enough job on the winners' two big scorers, Jones and Armand, who entered the game as the highest scoring tandem nationally. On Monday, though, that pair was held to 24 total points on 6-of-18 shooting.

"It's about time," said Iona coach Tim Cluess, about Bowman. "He's had a few defensive breakdowns lately and he knew if wasn't playing defense he wasn't going to get as much time. And, tonight, he came out with so much intensity. We don't have an athlete quite like him and he did a terrific job at both ends of the court."

No comments: