NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. - Alexander Pope, like some of his 18th century contemporaries, probably had more faith in mankind that most of us do today.
Even if you disagree, he definitely had more belief than the average New York sports fan. They don't call it a Bronx Cheer
for nothing, you know.
Iona College is not technically inside the city limits of New York, but it's close enough.
Last March, most of you saw the unfortunately epic collapse against BYU in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. You know, the one where the Gaels led by as many as 25 before losing 78-72, finding themselves on the ignominious end of a tournament record. Iona somehow scored 55 points in the first 15:24 of the contest, and then seven in the next 16:31.
But the toughest part for Iona fans to take was that it was far from an isolated capitulation. The Gaels, even with one of the best point guards in the country in Scott Machado and all-MAAC forward Mike Glover, led Fairfield in the MAAC semifinals big before disappearing in the second half
. They had massive advantages against Manhattan
and Siena, and conspired to throw them both away. And so even though the Gaels finished 25-8, the 2011-12 campaign had a little bit of a "what might have been" feel to it.
But, seven months later, as it does in our world, hope sprung eternal as a new-look Iona team took on a Denver squad that was no cupcake, coming off a 22-9 season and looking to make waves as a newly-minted member of the WAC.
Hynes Athletic Center, an old-school gym that I somehow didn't get to last in TMM8, filled up for the 9 p.m. Friday night start, there was a buzz in the air, the band played some old-school tunes, the bagpipes came in before the game to really rile people up. Wait? Bagpipes? Whatever works, I guess.
Both teams had early jitters, but once Iona got out and ran, the Gaels were able to open up what had to be an insurmountable 40-17 halftime lead. Tre Bowman, one of the new names, scored 15 seconds into the second half and the lead was 25. We all know 25-point leads are the most dangerous in college basketball.
If you learned anything about foreshadowing and harbingers in middle school English you know what happened next. Denver's Princeton offense, inept and plodding (three shot-clock violations) in the first half, suddenly found open looks all over the floor. Many of them were in the paint, as Coach Joe Scott and crew found a big hole in Iona's matchup zone, and it was near the foul line. Twenty-five became 17, which quickly became 9. Royce O'Neal's layup with 4:44 left made it 59-53 as Iona's past-faced offense ground to a halt. Again.
"Same old bullcrap," said the guy behind me. "New team, same old bullcap."
We can turn the page. We can say things are different. We can change our friends. We can forgive.
But most of us can't forget.
The ghosts of last season started to tighten around Iona as the game was slipping away. Tim Cluess stormed up and down the sideline, made subs, changed defenses. But surely he knew that wasn't the answer here.
Onions. Giant onions.
It took until January for me to see Iona play last season
, and I was excited to see the pressing, up-tempo style that pushed the Gaels to be the leading scoring team in Division 1. I pictured the old days of Loyola Marymount and Paul Westhead. Iona jumped out to a huge lead against Marist, threatened to score 70 in the first half.
However, Iona went cold, Marist made a run and the game suddenly slowed to a jog. It's almost a default setting these days for coaches whose teams play "up-tempo". When things get tough, when opponents inevitably get a few points in a row, like driving a car with brake lights ahead, the instinct is to let off the gas pedal.
Westhead and LMU were mentioned in my season-opening essay (and obviously last year's Marist-Iona game as well), and were the subject of an entire other one as well. Luke Winn also wrote a fantastic piece
on the 1990 showdown between the Lions and Shaquille O'Neal-led LSU. Winn, like us, delved into why teams just don't play that way anymore.
Bill Raftery spends most of his time above the Red Line, but I don't think he discriminates. His signature "onions" when someone hits a clutch shot is clichéd, but it's still one of my favorites.
As Winn points out, the demise of Westhead and his System was not unique to LMU. Scoring has gone down across the board precipitiously in the last two decades, which makes me a little sad inside. It makes me more sad to see a team like Iona, who is clearly built to run and gun, either unwilling or unable to make it work consistently, to their detriment.
I wonder what would happen if an undersized team with Sean Armand, one of the best shooters in the country, and Momo Jones just kept shooting. Would they be better or worse in the long run? It would take "onions", big ones to see it through the pitfalls that would be attached surely, but it can't be that much worse than what I saw for a 10-minute stretch in the second half here.
"Plenty of coaches agree in the offseason that they're going to run more next year," Westhead told Winn. "Players' eyes light up, and there's kind of an approving smile on their faces. But between the first day of practice and the first game, everyone is over it. Accommodations have been made. The running game is too hard for the players. ... And if they aren't fully committed to it, it's doomed to fail."
On this night, Iona was bailed out by their smallest player, 5-foot-9 Iowa State transfer Tavon Sledge, who - ironically - was drawn to Iona partly because of its up-tempo style. Sledge came off the bench with six points, five assists, and - most impressively - seven rebounds, buzzing all over the floor to make things difficult for Denver. When it was 59-53, Sledge assisted on five straight Jones points and eventually the Gaels held on for a 65-58 win that would have been more impressive had it not played out the way it did.
You don't want to make more out of an Opening Day game than you should; it's a long season, Iona's campaign can do in any direction, which is why we love it.
But while hope does indeed spring eternal, the souls of Iona fans are still a bit uneasy after another near second-half disaster.
Oops, did I say disaster? No, this was a basketball game. There was a real disaster in New York (and the surrounding areas) a couple of weeks ago, and signs going driving to the game about gas rationing in the NYC area certainly drove that point home.
It's important to remember that sometimes. We are indeed "blest".