MAAC Tournament: Big 4 bully Iona sends Niagara packing
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • March 11, 2013 @ 12:20am
It may be the first time in recent memory that Canisius and Niagara can agree on something: the Iona Gaels were the villain of the 2013 MAAC Tournament.
Fewer than 24 hours after dispatching Canisius 89-85, Iona stumped Niagara 79-73 in a remarkably similar game. The Gaels advance to the tournament final at 9 p.m. Monday against the Manhattan Jaspers. The game will be televised on ESPN2, but we’ll live-blog it on Buffalo.com so you can follow if you’re not near a TV.
“It hurts. It hurts bad,” said Niagara red-shirt sophomore Antoine Mason, who topped all scorers with 21. Look back at the live-blog to recall the action.
Because Niagara won the MAAC regular season title, however, the Purple Eagles are guaranteed a place in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Niagara may host one or more postseason contests from March 19 until 27, depending on its seeding determined March 17.
“Our hearts are broken, but at the same time—as I said to the guys—there are a lot of people whose hearts are broken and they’re turning their uniforms in,” NU head coach Joe Mihalich admitted.
“We’re not doing that. We’re going to a special postseason tournament, and we’re going to let the pain wear away, and if I know these guys, they’ll set a new set of goals to do something special in the NIT.”
“It’s a special bunch of guys. I don’t know if we had any business winning 13 games in the league this year, winning one here in the playoffs [and winning] a regular season championship,” the veteran coach added. “I think we’re the 40th youngest team in the country.”
It wasn’t All-MAAC guards MoMo Jones or Sean Armand that doomed the Purple Eagles, however—6’8 sophomore center David Laury thoroughly dominated Niagara down low, notching 20 points, 17 rebounds and two assists and two blocks.
Regardless of who Joe Mihalich chose to defend Laury and Taaj Ridley (16 points, six rebounds), the Iona bigs were either too strong for freshman T.J. Cline or too quick for Devon White.
“Dave [Laury] came through big tonight once again, Taaj came through big once again,” said Jones, who played through an illness for the second straight game. “It’s a big difference when it’s not just me and Sean [shouldering the scoring]—you have Dave and Taaj coming through. You can’t guard us how you usually guard us, you can’t nitpick on one thing.”
It was Laury’s physicality and attitude on the glass that was most valuable, as he kept Niagara from extra possessions and allowed Iona to sprint out in transition.
“[Laury] didn’t give many guys chance to get a rebound—he was a little stingy there,” Cluess said with a smile.
“He said ‘every one is mine,’ and he chased out of his area, which is a huge thing for any guy to do that, especially at the defensive end. That team in the last 10 minutes at Niagara owned us on the boards, and tonight David got to every one of them.”
Iona pushed its lead to nine, 70-61, with 6:37 left on a steal and three-pointer by sophomore point guard Tavon Sledge. The Gaels would go cold, however, failing to score for the next four minutes—Niagara had a chance to swing the momentum, but only mustered six points during Iona’s drought, bricking five shots from the floor and clanking two free throws in the process. Not surprisingly, the MAAC’s most productive offense couldn’t be stifled forever.
Cluess’ Gaels scored their final nine points from the free-throw line—on 10 shots—capping the first two games shooting 52-of-62 from the line (84%) as a team. That’s ridiculously efficient, even by Iona’s standards, as the Gaels’ were the best free-throw shooting team in the MAAC regular season by six percentage points (78% to second-place Canisius’ 72%).
Even though Iona’s been a work in process defensively for much of the season—a problem exacerbated by a helter-skelter offensive style—the Gael guards clamped down in the second half, holding Juan’ya Green and Mason to a combined 4-17 shooting.
As former NBA player Anthony Mason shook his head angrily and hollered “Why would you go away from your leading scorer?” to Mihalich late in the second half, it was more Mason’s predictability that limited him to five second-half points.
Jones took a charge on Mason on a drive down the right wing with 6:17 left, and MoMo agreed that defensive stop was a turning point for Iona.
“I thought: ‘We got ‘em,” said Jones post-game. “I grew up with [Mason], and I’ve known him since I was a young kid. I know he’s a power player, and I know he wants to go right. I was telling coach the whole night, ‘All he wants to do is go right, all he wants to do is go right.’”
“I think after that charge it set him back,” the transfer from Arizona said pointedly. “[Mason] wasn’t as aggressive as he was early on.”
Green, who finished 5-17 one night after hitting 4-14, blamed his form for his errant shooting night.
“On all my shots I was leaning to the right—I just didn’t have a good night shooting,” the sophomore All-MAAC First Team guard reflected sadly.
Iona’s perspective on shutting down Niagara’s top guard was a little difference, as Jones credited Sledge’s tenacity on the perimeter—the 5’7 sophomore guard relentlessly pressured Green, challenging every pull-up jumper and foray to the rim.
“Tavon did a tremendous job—Juan’ya is a great player and he’s going to get even better, but Tavon had that motor in his tank that he’s had all year—that he comes to practice with, that he wakes up with, and tonight that helped us tremendously,” Jones said.
“We concentrated on their two better players and made the rest of the players beat us,” Cluess added, “and fortunately they weren’t able to do that tonight.”
Because the Purple Eagles are so young—they lose Devon White after this season and only three (Jordan, Gillette, Lemmons) after next year—the cupboard is stocked with talent and continuity, and the NIT will provide valuable pressure situations for further seasoning.
“We’re going to wake up in a day or two and be tickled to death,” Mihalich admitted. “Excited as can be to be in a prestigious tournament like that. It’s a tremendous accomplishment for this team. The dream for this weekend was to be cutting down the nets [Monday] night, but to be in the NIT is something to be proud of.”