The last time Iona beat an Ivy League program, most of its current roster hadn’t even been born.
In what was the first-ever meeting between the two programs, Iona took down Yale 83-67 behind a career-high 24 points from sophomore E.J. Crawford. Despite being second in geographical proximity only to New York City’s Columbia University, Yale had been the lone Ivy League never to square off against Iona.
“I just figured I needed to be more aggressive, play tougher, play defense, and it’ll come to me, and it’s coming now,” Crawford said of his improved play. “Just be more aggressive on both sides of the ball.”
The matchup between the Gaels and the Ivy League has been a rare one through the years. Iona had not even faced a member of the league in over ten years, last falling to Princeton on November 14, 2007. The last time Iona scored an Ivy League win came December 14, 1996 at Cornell.
Iona took full advantage of its return to the cozy confines of the Hynes Athletic Center. Despite trailing by seven nearly eight minutes into the game, the Gaels rattled off a 21-3 run over the next 5:27 to seize a double-digit lead they would never relinquish.
The Gaels improved to a remarkable 78-13 in New Rochelle under head coach Tim Cluess, who is currently in his eighth season at Iona. In part due to their success at home, the Gaels have been forced to take to the road for much of the early season. Tuesday’s win was Iona’s second and final home non-conference game of the season.
“I like the fact that we’ve gone to some places that have had really big crowds going against us to see how certain guys react for us and who can handle that situation, and who can’t,” Cluess said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how they all, whether we’re up by a few or down double digits, we’ve found a way to fight back in every single game. I saw that fight in us and now I’m starting to see us bring that fight a little earlier in the game, which I really enjoy.”
Crawford was the star of the night, and has been a vital part of Iona’s current four game winning streak. The sophomore has eclipsed the 20-point mark twice in the last four games with another 19-point performance in the Gaels’ last win at NJIT.
“He battled better, so all the things we’re asking him to do, he’s slowly coming around to doing,” Cluess said of Crawford. “Certain games more than others, and tonight I thought he was very good at it.”
“Just his mentality,” Much said when asked to name Crawford’s biggest improvement since last season. “We talked about it last year, he’d come into a game or practice whatever it is, and nobody can guard him. That’s just his mindset.”
Much enjoyed a breakout night of his own, connecting on seven of thirteen shots for a season-high 19 points, his most points since a matching outburst against rival Manhattan February 24th. Together, Much and Crawford combined to hit seven of Iona’s eleven triples on the evening.
What makes Iona so dangerous and the preseason pick to win the league is exactly what occurred on Tuesday – the sources that power the team to victory can come from any direction.
While Much and Crawford carried the load, starting point guard Rickey McGill ran into early foul trouble and sat most of the first half. TK Edogi and Schadrac Casimir were non-factors in the scoring game, but the bench came through.
Zach Lewis filled in at point in the first half while Roland Griffin connected on four of five shots from the forward position. Jan Svandrlik went 3-3 for eight points, and freshman C.J. Seaforth got going with a pair of 3-pointers and has now scored in consecutive games after being a non-factor for the team’s first seven games.
“I think it’s been really important for our development as a team,” Cluess said of the bench’s success. “We feel comfortable with those guys coming off the bench now and bringing some energy to the game first of all. Guys can also make a few shots here and there, but I think it’s the defensive energy that they’ve brought in that changed the game.”
Iona will hit the road once more, but not travel far. The Gaels head to Madison Square Garden to take on St. John’s this Sunday, bringing to an end another streak which has spanned the lives of Iona’s players. It will be the first meeting between Iona and St. John’s since 1995.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Cluess said of the Red Storm. “It’s probably the best team they’ve had in a long time. We’re going to have a huge challenge ahead of us. Same thing I’m looking for as today: I want us to go out and be the scrappiest, toughest team on the court and play as hard as we can possibly play. Whatever happens with the score, happens with the score.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.