If anybody forgot the Iona Gaels have been the class of the MAAC over the last decade, Tim Cluess’ squad put out a healthy reminder Sunday afternoon in a 91-64 thrashing of Rider.
The Gaels put forth their most complete effort of the season, placing five in double figures while holding the Broncs to a season-low 64 points and just 0.84 points per possession. Redshirt junior Schadrac Casimir led the way with 15 points, and has again proven to be the most pivotal cog in Cluess’ offensive machine.
Casimir entered the game averaging 8.1 ppg for the season, but that average jumps to 11.5 ppg with a 53.1% mark from three-point range in Iona’s victories. He has now scored in double figures in four consecutive games for the first time since his 2013-14 Rookie of the Year campaign.
“He’s a player again out on the court,” Cluess said of Casimir, who has worked his way back from multiple surgeries. “You can see the confidence coming out in him even more and more every game he plays.”
Casimir ended the afternoon 3-4 from behind the arc as the Gaels nailed 16 three-pointers, matching their second-highest total of the season.
Six different players joined in on Iona’s three-point parade, led by veterans Deyshonee Much and Jan Svandrlik who knocked down four apiece. Known for an offensive scheme emphasizing the three-ball, Iona has hit double-digit threes in 11 games this season after posting 20 during the 2016-17 campaign.
Although the offense was firing on all cylinders, the Gaels’ success on the defensive end is what opened most eyes. Rider entered Sunday averaging 83.2 ppg, but was held to just 24 second-half points as Iona pulled away late.
Much kicked things off with a three-pointer on the game’s first possession, but Rider responded with a 10-0 run. The Broncs opened up a 10 point lead midway through the half, but Iona closed on a 12-5 run over the final five minutes of the period to take a 44-40 lead into the break.
“We came out a little flat,” Junior guard Rickey McGill said. “We just knew we had to stop them from getting second-chance points.”
The Gaels did let up 15 second-chance points off 14 offensive rebounds, but forced the Broncs into 20 turnovers, converting those into 28 points off turnovers.
Iona would never relinquish the lead in the second half as it held Rider to just three field goals over the game’s final 11 minutes. Rider’s leading scorer Frederick Scott (14.8 ppg) was held to just nine points, and finished a dismal 1-8 from the free throw line.
Rider did get a strong start from sophomore Stevie Jordan, but the point guard rolled his left ankle shortly before halftime after coming down hard while converting a layup. Despite playing just 17 minutes, Jordan ended up the Broncs’ leading scorer with 14 points.
Jordan’s 6.8 assists per game average leads the MAAC and his absence clearly impacted the Broncs in the second half, but head coach Kevin Baggett downplayed the significance of his lead guard’s injury.
“Stevie was out last year, and he was out earlier in the year,” Baggett said. “We know how to play without him. Our whole mentality is next man up. We’re never going to go woe is me or worry about it. I love Stevie and I can’t wait to have him back, but that’s why you have other guys on the bench that are supposed to step up.”
The Gaels’ 27-point margin of victory was the program’s best since defeating Marist 101-66 on December 4, 2015.
“Against a team like this who’s that athletic and that physical and that good, it was good to bring it against them and be able to sustain our effort,” Cluess added. “We’re playing better. I’m really excited to see that today we did, now can we carry that forward?”
Iona has been far from the juggernaut of years past, but now finds itself in a familiar position. Sunday’s win leaves the Gaels in a first place tie atop the MAAC standings with Canisius. The Golden Griffins got the better of Iona on New Year’s Eve, but the two are scheduled for a high-profile rematch in New Rochelle next Sunday.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.