After Tuesday night’s performance, it was easy to label Iona as the A.J. English show.
However, the senior coming off a 46-point, 8-assist performance managed to help his team back to their 101 point output, all while not being the Gaels’ leading scorer for the first time this season.
“It’s not about me stepping on the court, it’s about Iona,” English said. “Whatever my teammates need I try to do, I told them like if it was the headlines – English scored this or whatever amount of points. I was like, if I’m going to play on the opposite team and I’m playing somebody that scored those numbers in my mindset is to stop him from getting his numbers.”
“I feel like maybe people were thinking I’m going to come up and try to force another 40, that’s not me, I’m just trying to win the game.”
English did not eclipse 40 and while 16 points might seem to be a paltry amount in 31 minutes, he did grab six rebounds, dish out nine assists, register three blocks and three steals as Iona cruised to a 101-66 win over Marist on Friday night. His line does not seem amazing, making just two three-pointers, but his first three-pointer of the night came from the top of the key at least from 26 feet away from the basket. In the first half he threw down a one-handed dunk in transition to amaze the crowd, yet what was just as impressive were other contributions.
“The guys were hitting shots and I’m gong keep looking for them,” English said. “Tonight was just, this is how I wanted the night to go, it’s better everybody gets their confidence going, gets happy and stuff like that.”
The win was even more impressive considering the Gaels were without Kelvin Amayo (knee), who has missed the last four games, as well as sophomore Schadrac Casimir (groin).
“He’s got an injury, he’s been playing with it for a while and he needs to take a rest from it,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said about Casimir, adding he did not know when the sophomore would be on track to return. “That’s what makes it even more interesting because not having him, not having Amayo and having so many new players that have stepped up, I’m really proud of these guys.”
Here are, not 101, but just three Iona thoughts as the Gaels move to 3-2 on the year, but more importantly 2-0 atop the MAAC:
Gaels Finding Old and New Answers: It’s hard to remember that last season most of the Gaels’ regular season dominance of the conference came without 6’7” forward Isaiah Williams. However the senior has started to embrace a newer role, while still being a shooter, Williams has shouldered the rebounding load as well. It was his hot start, making each of his first five three-pointers, that helped carry the Gaels to a lofty lead.
“I just felt that it was open shots that I take every day in practice,” Williams said.
English used a ball screen from the Williams and found him wide open to drain his fifth three of the first half. Williams finished the night with 18 points and nine rebounds to go with a block and a steal, and only because of two early fouls did he play only 12 first half minutes.
Yet it wasn’t just Williams. James Madison transfer Taylor Bessick turned in his best game as a Gael, scoring 11 points, grabbing seven rebounds and adding two blocks. Junior Jordan Washington also continued his steps forward as a starter, posting his best game – a 21 point night. The size the two offer, both standing above 6’8”, gives the Gaels a presence they have hardly had during Cluess’ tenure.
“A level of toughness inside that we haven’t had since Mike Glover and I think that really helps us a lot,” Cluess said of how he felt about Washington. “I think he also, because of the way he’s capable of playing, can open our permitter up a little bit, because when you don’t have that it’s easy to crowd people on the perimeter.”
“He can either score in there or command a double-team and gets himself to the line as well. I thought Taylor Bessick off the bench was a huge, huge presence on the defensive end for us and made some really big plays. I think that combination was nice for us to have, it’s more depth than we’ve had in a while.”
Gaels Sharing the Ball and Playing Defense: The Gaels are a fun team to watch when they are in tune with each other, which Williams said has just taken time to get used to playing and trusting each other on the floor. After two straight 101-point outings it would appear that was set, but Marist did lead this game twice early when the Gaels opened up stagnant offensively. However that quickly changed and their offense quickly found ways to get moving and take advantage of their size, quickness and ability to attack the basket. Yet one thing you hardly associate the Gaels with over the last few seasons is defense, but they have started to shut teams down. Fairfield and Marist were held under a point per possession, but more importantly turned the ball over a combined 35 times in two games.
“I thought our guys, bench included, came in with a defensive mindset and our defense led to some good offense,” Cluess said.
Question Marks Remain for Iona: Even through back-to-back 101-point performances, it is possible that the Gaels have hardly reached their potential. Amayo and Casmir, two starters from last season, are out for what could be extended periods of time, but Cluess and Iona have found one thing they did not have last season: depth. The game’s final five minutes were about the second team Gaels and Cluess emphasized post game that he wanted to make sure they kept the same intensity. Ibn Muhammad tallied seven points, three assists and kept active on defense with three steals in just 11 minutes of play. Aaron Rountree did not score, but dished out four assists, which was welcome, as Cluess said he was looking for Roundtree to become a more willing passer. Yet this team is still building and learning what they can get from their bench, which they expect to be an asset this season, as oppose to a liability.
“I think our depth is very good right now,” Cluess said. “Some of our depth is still being developed and we’re still testing out to see what certain guys can and can’t do how they fit together.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.