Iona's MAAC Championship Is Another Step Toward Becoming a Mid-Major Power

Andrew JordanSenior Writer IMarch 12, 2013

Mar 11, 2013; Springfield, MA, USA; Iona Gaels guard Lamont Jones (2) celebrates with fans after defeating the Manhattan Jaspers in the championship game of the Metro Atlantic Conference tournament at MassMutual Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight's 60-57 win by the Iona Gaels over the Manhattan Jaspers in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game symbolized the journey the program has traveled over the last year.

After being suffocated by Manhattan's defense during the first half along with getting in foul trouble, the Gaels used a 17-2 run over a 5:51 stretch in the second half to win their first MAAC Championship in seven years.

They also used one of their best defensive efforts of the season to contain the Jaspers. Manhattan made 17 field goals and was held to 40.5 percent shooting on the night.

Furthermore, the 57 points Iona allowed are the fewest conceded by the Gaels this season.

Leading the Gaels in the win was junior Tre Bowman, who had 20 points off the bench to give a spark that was needed with leading scorers senior Lamont "Momo" Jones and junior Sean Armand held to a combined 21 points.

Jones and Armand were with the program in their trip to the NCAA tournament last March that was prematurely cut short after holding a 25-point first-half lead against Brigham Young.

They experienced the loss of transfer Michael Haynes, who was murdered last August shortly before he was supposed to join the Gaels. 

Tonight's win may not erase the memory of loss to BYU or of Haynes. Both are serving as motivation for the team this season.

However, winning the MAAC will serve as another memory of a season that has propelled the Gaels and their program forward. 

Following tonight's result, the Gaels have won their eighth MAAC championship, the most of any school in the conference's 31-year history.

It also brings Iona to consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time since the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons.

Iona, who have won 20 games in four consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1980s, are now in a position to be considered to be a mid-major power.

Under Tim Cluess, the Gaels have won 70 games in which the former C.W. Post coach has been in charge of the Maroon and Gold.

Using Cluess' free-flowing offensive style, the Gaels averaged 83.3 points per game, finishing first in the country in the category during the 2011-12 campaign.

This season, Iona has averaged 81.3 points per game, the second-highest total in the nation.

Cluess' style has convinced several players from programs in major conferences to come to the New Rochelle-based school, including Bowman (Penn State), Jones (Arizona) and Tavon Sledge (Iowa State).

The Gaels have also produced several professional basketball players who have graduated since Cluess became coach in 2010. This includes Scott Machado, the first Iona basketball player to play in the NBA since Sean Green in 1994.

With these new players, the Gaels have defeated notable nonconference programs like Maryland, Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Nevada, Wake Forest, Georgia and St. Bonaventure during the last two seasons.

The combination of Cluess and his players allowed the Gaels to reach the final of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) in 2011 before earning an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament last year.

By winning the MAAC, Cluess has made himself a more appealing coach to future recruits in the New York City area.

He also puts the Gaels into a position on the national stage where they will likely have to play stronger opponents.

Although Jones, Ridley, Nyandigisi "Diggs" Moikobu and Curtis Dennis will see their Iona careers end in the coming weeks, they will leave Iona as players who will have helped to lay the foundation for a mid-major power.

Considering the adversity they had to deal with this season, a spot as one of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament is a fitting way for them to finish their collegiate careers and for the program to continue to advance.

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