Three Thoughts: Iona 86, Florida Gulf Coast 67

Iona came into this game as one of the few teams that wanted to see if Florida Gulf Coast would accept their bait of playing an up- and-down game.

That was exactly the case in the first half, as both teams combined for 87 points. However, the second half slowed down, which should have been to the Eagles’ advantage, but seven second half turnovers from FGCU turned into 12 Gaels’ points as Iona put the game away quickly on Tuesday.

For more on Dunk City failing to live up to the hype and their struggles, check out the story I filed for the Naples Daily News, but below are three thoughts on the Gaels’ strong performance.

Hines over Amayo to start, but both contribute equally – Sophomore Ryden Hines made just his second start of the season, in place of junior Kelvin Amayo who went off for a career-high 27 points the previous game. It might have seemed like a head-scratcher, but head coach Tim Cluess wanted to key in on rebounding and that’s what he got from the 6’10” Alaskan.

Hines added just three-points on a right corner triple to put the Gaels up 10 early, but it was his eight rebounds — which tied David Laury for the team-high — and helped beat the Eagles on the boards 39-30.

“It really helped us that we were able to play big today and still score the ball,” Cluess said. “Ryden really took a lot on his shoulders and I think he made it easier for Dave [Laury] to rebound at times, since he wasn’t always taking the biggest guy off the boards.”

The sophomore said that he knew his role was to go chase and get rebounds, to try to do what he can to earn the Gaels’ their seventh win on the season.

“I feel like if we can control the boards it will help us out in the long run,” Hines said. “At the end of games, close games, it limits their second chance points. If we can do that, it will be get the ball in our hands and they’ll score less points.”

If Hines can prove to be a capable rebounder in conference play, Iona should be able to compete with some of the more formidable front lines in the MAAC. Cluess said that he wanted to try something different, when looking at the numbers, to see if Hines and Laury could play well together for longer periods of time.

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Iona junior A.J. English eludes FGCU defenders on Tuesday.

“If I was going to tell you one guy who gives us a chance on interior defense, he’s going to work the hardest to do that and the last game we just gave up way too many easy baskets,” Cluess said. “Ryden is not going to block shots, but he’s going to get in the way; whether its trying to take a charge or just having his body there.”

Controlling the game with length worked for the Gaels, holding Dunk City to a season-low one dunk.

“I mean everybody knows Florida Gulf Coast, you know what I’m saying, Dunk City,” junior A.J. English said. “I mean we just tried to make sure that we got in there and tried to limit their dunks.”

Containing FGCU came down to the way they played Brett Comer. The school’s all-time assists leader, Iona shaded off the senior in the first half and he torched them for 20 points. However, Cluess’ plan was to see if Comer’s teammates could punish the Gaels in the second half and put junior Kelvin Amayo on Comer.

“We sat there, and it sounds crazy, if they’re going to beat us he’s going to have to have 40 and at halftime I said he may get that,” Cluess said. “We were kind of like letting him shoot and keying on other guys. In the second half, we said okay now let’s try to cut him off and if the other guys, after not scoring for a half, can beat us.”

Comer admitted after the game that Amayo pressured him well in the full court, holding the 6’3″ senior just two points in the second half.

English finds his groove – Coming off two disappointing performances, most recently a 10-point performance at George Mason after just eight against Indiana State, it was easy to think that junior A.J. English was going to get his game going soon enough. He did just that, making half his field goals, five three-pointers and leading the way with a game-high 27 points in the win.

“Everybody is telling me, like I had tough game, but I feel like definitely my numbers wasn’t like how they usually are, but I feel like it’s not about me,” English said. “I feel like I’m the fourth, fifth best player on the team, so like I just try to feed off my guys.”

While being the fourth or fifth best player on the team might be an understatement, the junior torched the Eagles with strong takes to the basket and his quick release on three-pointers, which he made five – his highest number since the Gaels’ blowout of Delaware State.

“I thought he took better shots,” Cluess said. “I thought he let the game come to him and I thought he didn’t force the game. I think when he does that, he’s a better player.”

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Iona head coach Tim Cluess was pleased with the team’s defensive effort against Florida Gulf Coast.

Half court offense killed Eagles – Florida Gulf Coast defended through the shot clock’s first 25 seconds, but it was the final 10 seconds where the Gaels would hurt their defense. It could hardly be attributed to FGCU struggling to defend either, Iona ran their best half court offense in a long time when they needed it most, when the Eagles forced them into a half court second half.

“I don’t think we tried to go one-on-one as often as we did not just the last game, but a lot of games this year,” Cluess said. “I thought the guys got into sets and played out of there and found opportunities.”

“I think that was the big part of the reason why two of our guys didn’t shoot well in the first half, I still think we had 49 points at halftime and we didn’t shoot it great. We missed foul shots, but of course we got more shots up because we didn’t turn it over.”

The Gaels converted 1.28 points per possession, 86 points on 67 possessions, turning the ball over a season-low seven times. Iona’s spacing and motion in their offense was at its best on Tuesday, moving the ball around without a problem against the Eagles defense. Even when the shot clock dwindled at times, the Gaels were able to find seams within FGCU’s zones and man defenses.

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.