Iona spent the entire month of December on the road. The Gaels went 6-2 on their road trip. They went as far west as Denver (an overtime win over the Denver Pioneers), as far north as Burlington (a win over the Vermont Catamounts) and as far south as Williamsburg (a win over the William and Mary Tribe). And on Tuesday night, Iona had a neutral site conference game at Madison Square Garden. Wearing the home whites, the Gaels gave the Garden crowd a 95-59 crushing of the Siena Saints.
But Iona finally played their first true home game at the Hynes Center last night since November 28 as they hosted Niagara. It was a later start than usual for a Gaels' night home game, 9:00 PM. This was to accommodate the folks at ESPNU who wanted Butler-Wright State for the 7:00 PM start time. The later start time didn't affect the crowd, as the Hynes Center was filled to near capacity. When the Gaels took the court a few minutes before tipoff, the PA announcer stated "Welcome home your Iona Gaels!" You know you have been away a while when you get a greeting like that.
The Gaels' opponent, the Purple Eagles of Niagara, came in with a 6-9 record. But they had won their last game, a 66-61 road upset over Loyola, Maryland, who was previously undefeated in conference. This was already the second game this season against Iona for Coach Joe Mihalich, who is coaching in his thirteenth season for Niagara. The Purple Eagles lost handily at home to the Gaels 98-75, one of the eight games on Iona's road trip. Considering how Iona destroyed Siena Tuesday night, it looked like it would be another long evening for Niagara.
However, the Purple Eagles showed why they knocked off the Greyhounds earlier in the week. They came out with intensity and purpose and the scoreboard reflected that. They held the nation's fourth-highest scoring team without a field goal over a three-minute span in the first half and eventually took a 22-17 lead with less than nine and a half minutes left in the half. The home crowd starting getting restless. But the Gaels' staple, the three point shot, would get them going. Jermel Jenkins and Sean Armand combined for three shots from beyond the arc, and the game was tied at 26 with seven minutes left in the half. Armand, who had a record-breaking three-point shooting performance Tuesday night at the World's Most Famous Arena, was rewarded for his efforts by starting over Kyle Smyth. Unfortunately, he did not have anywhere near the success of Tuesday night. Armand only shot two of eight from beyond the arc and had six points on the night.
The rest of the half saw only fourteen points scored as both teams struggled from the field. Iona would go into halftime up 35-31. The Gaels leading scorer on the season, Michael Glover only had four points. It would seem that Coach Tim Cluess' game plan in the second half was for Iona to get it inside to their best player.
And sure enough, that's what happened at the start of the second half. Glover scored the first six points for the Gaels. A few minutes later, he assisted on two straight layups by Taaj Ridley. Finally he capped a 19-10 spurt with a layup and hitting one of two free throws in a later possession to put Iona up 54-41 with a little over ten minutes remaining in the game. It looked like the rout was on.
But Niagara, a young team with six of the seven players in their rotation being freshmen or sophomores, again showed resiliency. An old-fashioned three-point play by Juan'ya Green and a three-point jumper by Marvin Jordan resulted in a Purple Eagles' 6-0 spurt. The lead was cut to seven, 54-47. After a free throw put the Gaels up eight, 55-47, Niagara had several chances to cut the lead further but couldn't capitalize. Then Randy Dezouvre, a reserve for Iona, gave the Gaels some huge minutes. He hit two layups in a row, grabbed a rebound and took a charge. As a result, Iona went back up by double digits, 63-49 with less than four minutes left.
But Niagara refused to quit and they didn't let the lead get any bigger. In fact, they cut the deficit to single digits, 63-55 with ninety seconds left. But the Purple Eagles would not get any closer. The Gaels had a hard fought 73-61 win and their homecoming was a happy one for their fans.
Glover scored fifteen of his nineteen points in the second half. Scott Machado had thirteen points and eight assists for Iona while Jermel Jenkins added twelve off the bench for the Gaels. Green, Jordan and Malcolm Lemmons each had fourteen points for Niagara, while Antoine Mason had twelve for the Purple Eagles. If that last name sounds familiar to New York City hoops fans, it should. He is former New York Knick forward Anthony Mason's son. His dad was there last night, and he is as big as ever.
As I left the Hynes Center with my older son Matthew, the PA system played "Back in the New York Groove." Yes, the Gaels are back in the New York groove. But I think the Gaels were just happy to be back home.
at IONA 73, NIAGARA 61 01/06/2012
NIAGARA 6-10 (1-3) -- J. Green 5-9 4-4 14; A. Mason 4-14 3-6 12; M. Lemmons 6-10 1-2 14; M. Jordan 3-8 6-6 14; A. Tanksley 2-11 0-0 4; J. Thomas 1-3 0-0 2; S. Gillette 0-0 1-2 1; J. Turner 0-3 0-0 0; P. Kowalski 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-58 15-20 61. IONA 12-3 (4-0) -- L. Jones 2-10 0-0 5; S. Machado 4-6 4-7 13; M. Glover 6-7 7-8 19; S. Armand 2-8 0-0 6; R. Dezouvre 2-3 1-2 5; T. Ridley 2-5 2-3 6; J. Jenkins 2-5 6-6 12; K. Smyth 1-4 0-0 2; N. Moikobu 1-2 1-3 3; R. James 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 23-51 21-29 73.
Three-point goals: NIAG 4-19 (M. Jordan 2-6; M. Lemmons 1-3; A. Mason 1-4; J. Green 0-2; A. Tanksley 0-3; J. Turner 0-1), IONA 6-23 (S. Machado 1-2; J. Jenkins 2-5; K. Smyth 0-3; L. Jones 1-5; S. Armand 2-8); Rebounds: NIAG 29 (A. Mason 7), IONA 36 (M. Glover 6); Assists: NIAG 3 (J. Green 2), IONA 18 (S. Machado 8); Total Fouls -- NIAG 23, IONA 18; Fouled Out: NIAG-None; IONA-None.