Iona College (3-2) defeated Niagara (2-4) 83-72 at the Hynes Center in New Rochelle, N.Y., Wednesday night in the opening game of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play.
Junior forward Sean Armand led the Gaels with18 points and 11 rebounds. Senior forward Curtis Dennis, a transfer from Toledo, had a breakout game with 17 points, including five three-point shots for the Gaels.
Point guard Lamont "Momo" Jones, who went into the game as the No. 2 scorer in the NCAA with 25.8 points per game, struggled through playing on a sore ankle and finished with 12 points.
The Gaels had five players in double figures scoring with 2 guard Tavon Sledge and forward Tre Bowman also adding12 points apiece. Sledge demonstrated strong ball-handling skills in the game often sharing the point duties with Jones and grabbing six rebounds.
For Niagara, Antoine Mason led with 24 points and Marvin Jordan had 14.
The Gaels sport a reloaded lineup this season, with nine new players, several of whom are transfers with experience at major Division I programs. Jones commented about the chemistry on the team built around only three returning players:
We have a group of guys who really get along well on and off the court, we hang out together, we trust each other. It is just getting everyone to learn the things, and get confident in the things we do.
In the first half, Iona appeared to split the point guard duties between senior Jones and Tavon Sledge the sophomore from long Island who transferred in after starting his college career at Iowa State, the Gaels went out to a 43-31 lead. The two seem to work well together, especially with Jones slowed slightly by an ankle injury.
Now in his second year at Iona after transferring from Arizona, Jones was the point guard on the Wildcats' Elite Eight team. The native of Harlem has worked to become a strong scoring player evidenced by a 40 point game at the Paradise Jam Tournament in the Virgin Islands against Quinnipiac.
Sledge looks like a solid Division 1 player, he handles the ball well and can rebound. He looks like one of those players with great hands, if the ball is loose nearby he gets it. At times when Sledge was given the ball playing the point, Jones had the opportunity to move around the court looking for open spots to take a pass and shoot. Jones and Sledge playing together in the backcourt look like a capable pair.
Curtis Dennis, the senior transfer from Toledo, hails from the Bronx and played part of his high school career locally at Blessed Sacrament in New Rochelle. He came in with 12 minutes to go in the half and gave Iona instant offense, getting eight quick points. Iona coach Tim Cluess commented about Dennis's strong game,
Really happy about Curtis Dennis, we expected a lot from him, and he struggled early. Before the game we talked about trusting your teammates and they trusted him by getting him the ball. He rewarded them by making shots.
Sean Armand, in his third year with the Gaels, is averaging 21 points per game and is their best three-point shooter. The native of Brooklyn led Iona in the first half with nine points on 3-of-6 shooting.
The Purple Eagles were making shots on Iona mostly inside. Junior guard Marvin Jordan gave Niagara 10 points in the half on four of six shooting including two threes. The Gaels led 43-31 at the break.
Tre Bowman, helped Iona get the second half off to fast start with a three-point jumper from the corner to give Iona a 46-34 lead. Bowman is from York, Pa., and played 16 games as a freshman at Penn State before playing last year at Midland College in Texas. He was a late roster addition announced in October. Curtis Denis followed Bowman's play with a three to give him 11 on the night.
Senior Taj Ridley, in his second year with the Gaels, has been alternating with junior Sean Jackson, came in and hit a short jumper to give Iona a 53-38 lead. Last year, Ridley saw decreasing time but has increased the speed of his play and has earned more time so far on the year.
After the game, Coach Cluess said he is reluctant to play the big lineup with both Ridley and Jackson in the game because, if both get in foul trouble, he has no big players to go to. This will change after the end of the first semester when 6'8", 240-pound David Lawry will be eligible to play.
Jones struggled somewhat missing shots, but Sledge was picking offensive rebounds with one putback that gave Iona a 66-56 lead. Moments later when Niagara narrowed the lead to 67-62 on a layup by Antoine Mason, Sledge made a smooth move down the lane for two points to put the Gaels up again by seven.
The Gaels scored eight of the next 10,punctuated by another three-point shot from the corner by Curtis Dennis for a 77-64 lead.
With the Gaels playing down the clock, Jones sped in from the perimeter for a layup and a 79-66 lead. The final score of 83-72 gave Iona its third win of the young season and demonstrated progress in implementing the talents of the players brought together for this season.
Positive signs for Iona were the six players who had nine points or more and the fact that the bench outscored Niagara 26-9. Iona showed a lot of energy on defense, which appeared to be a hybrid between a zone and man coverage. Defending against three-point shots forced defenders away from the basket. Sean Armand commented about the progress Iona has made on defense,
Our defense was fine in the first half, especially holding them to 31 points. Of course teams get going in the second half and we need to learn to play a full 40 minutes of basketball.
The Gaels are now 3-2 on the season and play at St. Peter's next Wednesday night before a date with Rutgers at Madison Square Garden on December 8.
Ken Kraetzer covers Iona basketball and West Point football for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY. His Twitter is @SAL50NYRadio Quotes obtained from post game press conference.