For the first time in the Tim Cluess era, Iona has lost two conference home games in a season.
The Gaels went nearly two years without a home loss before dropping a 110-102 contest to Monmouth just under a month ago, snapping a 26-game home winning streak. Iona’s new streak ended at just two games with an 81-78 loss to Siena Saturday afternoon.
Belying Siena’s 17-9 record entering the weekend, the Saints had been just 2-4 against conference foes with a winning record and 1-5 when playing on less than 48 hours rest. Siena took on both of those situations as they headed to New Rochelle, but were able to reverse both trends.
The Saints overcame a 12 point second half deficit and despite a tumultuous final 90 seconds that saw Iona nearly erase a seven point Siena lead, were able to hang on thanks to stout defense in the final seconds.
Here are three thoughts from Siena’s victory over Iona Saturday afternoon. Click here to check out our photo gallery from this game.
1.) Siena is full of tough love. The turning point in the Saints’ comeback came with 10:36 remaining in the second half. After an Isaiah Williams 3-pointer gave Iona a 12 point lead, their largest of the game, Siena’s Brett Bisping kicked off an 11-0 Saints run over the next three minutes. That run was largely the product of a heated huddle during the under-12 timeout.
“We had a huddle with twelve minutes to go and it was kind of everybody was just upset because we know we’re better than that,” head coach Jimmy Patsos said. “I think that’s the sign of a team coming together. Everybody cared. There was nobody mad at each other, we were just upset that we weren’t playing better.”
Bisping and fellow forward Javion Ogunyemi helped limit Iona’s Jordan Washington to just three points and two rebounds with seven turnovers in 12 minutes of play.
“We just matched up really well, but I think Javion got one of their big men flustered early,” Bisping said. “We had a couple of big blocks, forcing travels, taking charges. I think we just set that early and kept up the tone for the rest of the game.”
Bisping, who had not practiced this week due to flu-like symptoms, completed a double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Ogunyemi matched Bisping’s point total, while the Saints were led by 20 points from freshman Nico Clareth.
“I think Brett has led this team with his energy,” Patsos added. “What Brett Bisping has done, to not practice at all this week, to not practice yesterday and have two fantastic games, rebound, do the dirty work, take charges, it rubs off on all of us. Brett Bisping is the reason we won this game.”
2.) Iona’s lack of forward depth will be an issue. In order for Iona to succeed, Washington needs to be able to stay on the court. It’s easy to make a case that the junior forward is the most talented big man in the MAAC, but he has repeatedly battled foul trouble this year.
Washington picked up his second foul with 7:46 remaining in the first half and played just six of the game’s final 20 minutes.
“He never got in a rhythm,” head coach Tim Cluess said of Washington. “They took away our jump shots, so Jordan had a one-on-one in there. We’re very comfortable giving Jordan the ball in there. He’s proven it all year long of how good he is, and today he had a tough day. He’s going to bounce back from that and be better.”
A.J. English led all scorers with 31 points, but took the lion’s share of the team’s shots. The senior guard finished 9-for-26 from the field and 3-for-12 from 3-point range, and added eight assists. English launched a half-court heave at the buzzer that would have tied the game, but landed off its mark. Fellow senior Isaiah Williams contributed 20 points and picked up numerous key offensive rebounds and steals.
Those seniors are the names the Gaels expect to produce day in and day out, but for Iona to succeed, other faces must contribute. Forward Aaron Rountree tied a career high with 12 points in Washington’s absence, but Washington remains the key to Iona’s success in the paint.
“Without Wash in there, we’re very very small inside as far as not just height, but thickness,” Cluess added. “Not having Taylor [Bessick] being able to play today too, we didn’t have that next guy that we could go to, so we played smaller than normal.”
3.) The key to victory could be found behind the arc. Though Iona has a reputation as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the nation, the Gaels rank just fourth in the conference in 3-point percentage (36.6%) in conference play. Although Siena is less reliant on the outside shot, the Saints are second in the MAAC in 3-point percentage (39.1%) behind only Monmouth.
Siena finished 11-for-20 from behind the arc while Iona ended 8-for-30 from long range. Additionally, three of Iona’s 3-pointers were direct products of offensive rebounds. Although the Saints dominated 42-28 on the boards, Iona pulled down 14 offensive rebounds to Siena’s 10.
“They just made a couple of lucky threes,” Patsos said. “We didn’t get some rebounds. They made threes off the rebounds.”
Perhaps the biggest negative to Siena’s game was the obvious hole at point guard. Junior Marquis Wright is nearing a return from a stress fracture in his right foot, but the Saints missed his presence more than ever Saturday. Iona’s press forced 23 turnovers, with 15 coming in the first half.
“We’re going to break the turnover record, but I’d rather have 18 wins,” an unapologetic Patsos said. “I’ve told you this from day one, we are going to turn the ball over. Yeah, I’d like to score 90, but I’ve been honest that I’m going to live with some turnovers.”
This was just the first of two meetings between Iona and Siena this season. The teams will meet again in just over a week, on February 22, in Albany.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.