Iona’s inspiring first half performance isn’t enough to beat North Carolina in NCAA Tournament


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Iona senior guard Rickey McGill scored a game-high 26 points against North Carolina.

Ryan McFadden, Sports Editor

COLUMBUS, Ohio- For a moment, the Iona College men’s basketball team caught the attention of the entire nation when the Gaels were going toe-to-toe with North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday evening.

Iona was knocking down shots from deep and its defensive pressure kept North Carolina from gaining consistency on offense, which led to the Gaels taking a five-point lead at halftime, and showing a sold out Nationwide Arena that they can hang with the nation’s best.

The Tar Heels flipped the script, going on a 12-2 scoring run early in the second half that put the exclamation point on their 88-73 victory over Iona to move on to the second round.

“The second half was a lot different from the first half,” North Carolina Head Coach Roy Williams said. “I thought the first half we were tentative on the offensive end and we didn’t do what we planned on the defensive end.”

Iona couldn’t generate points in the paint, which forced the Gaels to settle for outside shots. Iona was impressive from the three-point line, going 10-21 in the first half.

Gaels’ senior guard Rickey McGill and junior Asante Gist were trading baskets to give their team a 35-27 lead with four minutes left in the first half.

“We just came out ready to play,” McGill said. “We knew they was going to come out and try and get a win over us, try and beat us by a lot. So for us to come out like the way we did, that was a big one.”

Iona, who ended the first half shooting 46 percent from the floor, was able to control the tempo and keep the Tar Heels on the ropes.

“[Iona] slowed down the tempo, used a lot of clock and hit a lot of three’s,” North Carolina graduate guard Cameron Johnson said. “They were swinging the ball around and they did a pretty good job of keeping us off the glass for the most part in that first half.”

What was working for Iona in the first half ended up being the team’s downfall in the second half, as the Gaels shot 25 percent from behind the arc. North Carolina was forcing Iona to take bad shots and commit turnovers, which led to points in transition.

“Some of our better shooters, especially in the second half, missed wide-open shots,” Iona Head Coach Tim Cluess said. “On the other end, they started playing on all cylinders and they started attacking much harder and got down the court in a hurry.”

North Carolina took a 42-41 lead early in the second half when senior forward Luke Maye found Johnson for a layup. It was the Tar Heels first lead since the eight minute mark of the first half. Johnson would later hit a wide open three-pointer in the corner to give the Tar Heels a 56-45 and shut the door on a potential Iona comeback.

“We knew that the way we played in the first half was unacceptable,” Johnson said. “We knew that wasn’t us, and that’s what [Williams] emphasized to us. We just had to go out there and execute and use our advantages.”

Johnson finished the game with 21 points and seven rebounds. Maye flirted with a double-double, posting 16 points and nine rebounds. Freshman forward Nassir Little had 19 points and four rebounds. Little provided North Carolina much needed energy in the second half by using his athleticism and attacking the rim.

“Before the game, all the coaching staff was telling me to be aggressive and get easy buckets inside,” Little said. “I think by doing that, opened up a lot of things in the second half.”

North Carolina shot 62.9 percent in the second half and outscored Iona 48-10 in the paint.

McGill had an inspiring performance, scoring 26 points and converting seven three-pointers in his final game wearing maroon and gold. Even when Iona was struggling during the second half, McGill was still giving it his all.

“I think [McGill] is a heck of a player,” Williams said. “He’s a four-year guy, four championships and four NCAA Tournaments. I congratulated him on that in the line as we were shaking hands.”

McGill will go down as one of the most successful players in Iona history and Cluess believes his career represents what Iona stands for.

“He’s meant a tremendous amount to our program over these last four years,” McGill said. “He’s going to be the model when we bring players in and recruit players that I want to use, how somebody came in not highly recruited, really didn’t do much as a freshman, and built himself up to the level he did and was part of four championship teams and four NCAA teams.”