It wasn’t pretty, and it was incredibly stressful at times, but Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels made big plays when it mattered most in Wednesday night’s win against the top-seeded Siena Saints.
In the first half, Iona seemed hopeless on the offensive side of the ball. MAAC leading scorer Isaiah Ross was barely able to get any shots off due to Siena’s suffocating defense. Senior point guard Asante Gist was doing everything he could to manufacture some offense but the Saints were clogging up all the passing and driving lanes thanks to their great size and athleticism. In essence, the Gaels’ offense was the most stagnant it had been all season in the first half tonight, only scored 21 points in the first 20 minutes of action.
That being said, Siena was not doing much better, as the Saints managed to score just 24 points in the first half. It was a true defensive battle which seemed like it would play into the hands of Siena considering their slow-paced style would force Iona to play defense in the half court, which is difficult for a team that wants to run and make plays in the open floor. It felt like the tempo of the game would bode well for Siena.
For the majority of the second half, that is exactly what happened. Iona continued to struggle on offense as Siena slowly but surely began to stretch the lead. The lead eventually grew to nine points, but that’s when the Gaels finally flipped the switch. Ross was finally getting open looks and he capitalized, as the First Team All-MAAC performer hit three huge 3-pointers in the second half. Ross finished with 14 points as well as 7 rebounds. Berrick JeanLouis was another key player in Iona’s comeback, as the junior made great cuts where he was able to convert on multiple crafty layups at the rim. As Iona’s offense finally started coming together, they stepped up on the defensive side of the ball as well. JeanLouis in particular was a defensive pest, and his defense is a big reason why Iona was able to take the lead and hold onto it. Asante Gist, who tallied a team high 16 points, did a great job of closing out the game with clutch free throws.
MAAC Player of the Year Manny Camper was completely off his game, scoring just 6 points and shooting just 25% from the free throw line. Siena’s other First Team All-MAAC player, Jalen Pickett, put up a solid stat line tonight with 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, but the defensive presence of Berrick JeanLouis ultimately prevented Pickett from taking over the game the way he’s capable of.
There is no doubt that this was an ugly game for both teams, but great teams know how win under difficult circumstances, and that is exactly what Iona did. Siena forced Iona to play a style they aren’t particularly comfortable with, but Pitino and the Gaels adapted to the situation and prevailed, and that speaks volumes about what kind of team they are.
As we look ahead to the semifinals, Iona will be playing either the #4 seed Marist Red Foxes or the #5 seed Niagara Purple Eagles. The Gaels’ semifinal game will take place at 6:00 PM on Friday night and can be watched on ESPNews.
Let’s hope Iona keeps playing with the same level of intensity and focus so that they can give themselves an opportunity to punch an NCAA Tournament ticket on Saturday afternoon.