Iona played their customary game at Madison Square Garden following Duke’s victory over St. John’s in Mike Krzyzewski’s 1000th win Sunday afternoon and ran the Purple Eagles back onto the streets of New York, 87-64.
In what turned out to be a much less eventful contest than their meeting upstate just nine days ago, the Gaels managed three double digit scorers with a pair over 20 while Niagara accounted for four players in double figures despite the lopsided result. Here are three thoughts from Iona’s win, which put the Gaels back into sole possession of first place in the MAAC:
Iona is getting along just fine without Isaiah Williams. Obviously the Gaels would rather have the junior guard in their lineup along with his 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, but in playing without him the last four games Tim Cluess’ squad has erased some of the concerns critics (guilty!) had about their depth.
Vangelis Bebis has stepped up admirably to fill Williams’ shoes. Averaging just 2.4 ppg through the first 20 games of the season, the freshman guard has posted back to back double digit games with 16 points against Rider followed by a 10 point game at the Garden.
“He’s been great the last two games,” Cluess said of Bebis. “It’s the time of the year when freshmen become sophomores and I think he’s grown up. That’s the kind of thing you hope young players do, that they hit a point in the season where they grow to that next step and he seems to be taking one. We’re really happy. It helps us a lot.”
Bebis earned the start in both of those games and looks to be firmly entrenched in the Gaels’ starting five for as long as Williams remains absent, which Cluess was hesitant to put an official timetable on. In the long run, Williams’ absence may turn out to be a boon for the Gaels’ as once he returns, Bebis should remain a confident contributor for a team that has struggled with its bench production this year.
Iona didn’t leave any room for doubt this time around. In their meeting nine days ago at the Gallagher Center, the Gaels barely escaped with a narrow one point victory after losing a once comfortable lead in the final minutes.
This time around, Iona left the Purple Eagles in their dust from the start. The Gaels took the lead on a David Laury layup less than three minutes into the game and never looked back, leading by as much as 16 in the first half before heading to the break up 45-30. They shot a torrid 60% from the floor in the first frame which only decreased slightly to 58.6% in the final 20 minutes.
“I think we squeaked by up at Niagara, thanks to A.J. Just like the previous year, he came through late,” Laury said. “We just wanted to come out with a lot of energy, playing in the Garden. Coach Cluess told us the most important thing tonight was to just enjoy the game.”
Laury and A.J. English each posted 20 point games, with Laury finishing at 25 to lead all scorers and English with 24. Each end of the Gael duo grabbed eight rebounds while Laury dished out six assists.
Chris Casey’s squad is coming together, but they still have a lot of work to do. In a battle between two of the league’s most porous defenses, the young Niagara squad managed four double digit scorers for the third time this year. The last occurrence came in that home meeting with Iona nine days ago.
For a young team like Niagara, which only carries one upperclassman on the roster in redshirt junior Rayvon Harris, it’s still very much a work in progress. However, as the team gets more experience playing together, the pieces will start to fit.
“I think we play hard, we do some good things,” Casey said. “We’ve got to learn to play from in front and we haven’t learned that yet. Young guys have to go through that a little bit before they learn.”
Looking ahead, Niagara will have an opportunity to right the ship. The Purple Eagles, with a unique kink in their schedule, alternate in their next four games between Marist and Quinnipiac. The Red Foxes and Bobcats will each pay visits upstate before hosting the Purple Eagles over the next two weeks.
Marist ranks last in the MAAC even after picking up their first league win (and second overall) over Fairfield Sunday afternoon, while the Purple Eagles had Quinnipiac dead to rights upstate last year before Umar Shannon bailed the Bobcats out at the buzzer.
“We basically move on,” Casey said after Sunday’s blowout. “Games come fast and furious, so you’ve got to have a thick skin. You can’t sit around and worry about the last one and think that you’re too good or too bad. You move on to the next game.”
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.