Iona makes history, wins fourth straight MAAC championship


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Iona is the only team in the MAAC to win four straight conference titles.

Ryan McFadden, Sports Editor

When the Iona College Men’s Basketball team was sitting at its lowest point of the season and everyone seemed down on themselves, Head Coach Tim Cluess reached for his cell phone one evening and texted senior Rickey McGill and junior E.J. Crawford, the only returners on the roster.

Cluess kept the message short and simple: “The three of us have to turn this around.”

McGill and Crawford, who have plenty of experience in handling the adversity that comes with playing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, helped the Gaels flip the script on their season and become the conference regular season champions.

McGill and Crawford’s faces were covered in tears and utter joy when the buzzer sounded on Iona’s 81-60 victory over Monmouth in the MAAC Championship on March 11, as all the hard work and tough times finally paid off.

“This shows how much time we put in as a team, how we never quit and never gave up,” McGill said.

The story may sound the same, but the record books have definitely changed with Iona being the first team in MAAC history to win four straight titles. Iona is the first number one seed to win the MAAC title since 2010, and have joined the likes of Gonzaga and Kentucky as schools that have won four consecutive conference titles.

“I’m so proud of my players and assistant coaches for all they do,” Cluess said. “Sometimes we forget that it’s a game for kids, played by kids. They are still young men and enjoy it. We try to remind our guys [of] that. I’m proud Iona is the team that everybody is going to look at as a team that raised the bar to four, and we going to shoot for number five too.”

McGill was named the Tournament’s Most Valuable Player. McGill, who was named First Team All-MAAC, finished with 10 points, four rebounds and three steals. McGill got in foul trouble, which held him to 28 minutes of playing time. Even on the bench, McGill was making an impact, as he was coaching his teammates and getting Iona fans who traveled to the Times Union Center hyped up.

Monmouth saw an opportunity to take advantage of Iona’s shooting struggles at the start of the second half when the Hawks cut the deficit to three.

Great ball movement by Iona set up a corner three-pointer by junior guard Asante Gist, who finished with 22 points, which led to a 20-4 scoring run. During that stretch, Gist made three of his five shots from deep and Iona’s defense held Monmouth to 1-8 shooting.

“We just started sharing the ball,” Crawford said. “Asante was able to get it going and we just fed off [him].”

Iona’s goal heading into the championship game was to match Monmouth’s physicality and aggressiveness on defense. The Gaels did just that, recording 34 rebounds and 11 steals, while forcing Monmouth to commit a game-high 15 turnovers. Junior Ben Perez tallied four steals to go along with 12 points.

“I thought we did a really good job on the defensive end,” Cluess said. “I’m more proud of the rebounding. That was a big key for us because Monmouth manhandled us before on the boards before. We didn’t let that happen tonight.”

Crawford, who was named to the MAAC All-Tournament Team, finished with 15 points and six rebounds. Agee was also named to the All-Tournament Team after recording 18 points and seven boards.

“We were hoping Tajuan’s learning curve would take a semester,” Cluess said. “He was in the gym working hard every single day and he’s really coachable. He sped that learning curve up and we’re proud of him.”

Iona will play in the NCAA Tournament once again, which is a dream come true for Gist and Agee, two players that are going dancing for the first time in their collegiate careers.

“Growing up watching March Madness, it’s always been a dream of mine to be a part of that,” Agee said. “It’s a blessing to me. We’ve put in a lot of work together. It’s surreal right now and I’m excited.”

“I can’t believe it,” Gist added. “Growing up watching the tournament, you thinking if you can get in there one day.”

Cluess knows his players are going to celebrate their accomplishments for a while, but he wants them to prepare to buckle down and get ready for the madness of the NCAA Tournament.

“The hardest part right now is the wait between now and Selection Sunday,” Cluess said. “We are not going to be playing games and guys are going to be celebrating so we are going to lose a bit of an edge. For us, it’s about working hard every day…Once they start running again, they’ll forget how happy they are and try to get back to business.”