Iona 86, Canisius 78: Thank You, A.J. English

Of course, knowing the ending didn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch for the veterans.

A.J. English – as he’s done many times in his Iona career – took over in the second half Sunday.

Iona basketball will obviously go on and if recent history is any guide, Tim Cluess and his staff will reload, but on his Senior Day, it was a good time to appreciate just how fun it has been to watch A.J. English and the Gaels play the last few years.

And so after the Griffins grabbed a 40-35 halftime lead and then extended that lead to 50-43 with 15:13 left, we all just grabbed our popcorn, put our feet up, and waited.

“I just was frustrated with how the game was going, and I just felt as a team we were better than that. I don’t particularly look at myself, I don’t care how many points I have on the scoreboard, but at the same time, you want to play well for your team,” English said. “I was glad when a couple shots went in for me, everybody starting picking it up.”

At the time, English had five points saddled by some foul trouble as well as some cold shooting (Iona actually went the first 16 minutes of the game without a three-pointer). But he pulled up and hit a 25-footer, then 30 seconds later went a few feet deeper to bring Iona within a point. His layup a minute after that gave the Gaels the lead.

The show, of course, needed some drama and Canisius was playing (and shooting) much better than it had in a mid-season slump. When Chris Atkinson hit the Griffin’s 13th three-pointer of the afternoon, his team was back in front 60-55 with 11:30 left.

But that look in English’s eyes was developing, the one that occasionally (as it almost did in last year’s MAAC title game) puts him on the edge. He drove hard to the hoop twice to give Iona the lead back (Deyshonee Much had a hoop in between), then with Canisius surrounding him, kicked to Much for a three. Another layup put Iona up eight, and the end result was an 86-78 victory.

“We got him in foul trouble early, and if we took a charge on him, it would have been a different scenario,” Canisius coach Jim Baron said. “He’s a good player and he makes everybody better by what he does. He was more aggressive in the first half. We had the lead in the first half and I think that’s what great players do, they start stepping it up at that point.”

Said Cluess: “He kind of senses the end is near and he wants to go out and give everything he’s got every single time on the court. He’s a true leader, and he’s not only a senior, but one of the best players we’ve ever had here and I’ve ever coached. He just wants to leave no doubts at the end.”

English’s final stat line was typical (although he hit only 3 three-pointers): 25 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists. Ho hum. Iona finished 35-4 in his MAAC career at the Hynes Center, and his other teammates that were honored on Senior Day: Isaiah Williams, Ibn Muhammad, and graduate transfer Aaron Rountree (who played well Sunday) deserve plenty of credit for the team’s success as well.

Sometimes, though, we fail to appreciate what we have until it’s gone. And, while his numbers are obviously impressive, A.J. English is one of the most entertaining college basketball players I’ve had the pleasure and – even though the game was virtually meaningless for MAAC seeding – I’m glad I got to see the final performance.

“I just thank God they gave me a chance,” English said. “I feel like a lot of people looked over me as far as not giving me a chance. Coach Cluess, right away without hesitation, gave me a chance out of prep school. I’m just thankful for what I got here and I’ll never forget these guys.”

What else did we learn at the Hynes Center Sunday?:

  1. Despite its offense, Iona’s defense will decide its fate

I was joking during the game about Iona’s “vaunted defense”, but it’s the biggest reason that the Gaels (19-10, 16-4) were able to win their last five games – including at Siena and at Monmouth. Iona finished the MAAC regular season third in defensive efficiency behind Monmouth and Saint Peter’s, and although Canisius finished at 1.17 points per possession, it was only 1.00 ppp in the second half.

Cluess attributed the first half to hot shooting from the Griffins and a little hangover from Senior Day ceremonies and credited Rountree (who played 26 minutes to Jordan Washington’s 21) with making a big difference on the defensive end.

“There’s always something you can do better, but I have to give them credit, they shot the lights out,” Cluess said. “But I thought our rotations were off, and we weren’t talking much on defense. Obviously, we have to be a lot better than that next week.”

2) Canisius needs defense, too

Defense is also the biggest reason why the Griffins (13-18, 8-12) had their struggles after it looked like they might be headed for another top-five MAAC finish, but finished 10th (after being 5th last season) in defensive efficiency in the conference, with no one around to protect the rim. As I said, they have been a bit better of late (although Iona was at 1.19 ppp), which might be good going forward, but …

3) Iona-Canisius III

The way the brackets have come out, a win Thursday by Canisius over rival Niagara would mean Iona and Canisius will play Friday night. The Gaels won both regular-season meetings handily, but it would put them in a bit of an awkward situation, playing two consecutive games against the same team.

For Cluess, though, it is what it is.

“Whoever it is is going to be a good team, and you could lose to anyone in this league on the right night, so bring it on,” Cluess said.