That was the question from first-year Iona coach Tim Cluess when he was asked to give an opening statement following his team’s 83-59 MAAC semifinal win over No. 3 Rider.
What else could Cluess say? His team had just beaten another opponent’s brains in. It’s been a ditto-minded run for the past nine games, as the No. 2 Gaels have won that many in a row and seem to be an overwhelming favorite against fourth-seeded St. Peter’s in Monday night’s title game. Only two of the nine wins have had a margin of less than 14 points by game’s end.
Iona kept Rider at arm’s length for the majority of Sunday night’s semis, then blew out the Broncs at the 10-minute mark, moving ever further from their inferior competition, proving they are the most lethal team in the conference, even if Fairfield won it.
The bittersweet tinge to this for the Gaels — Kyle Smyth injured his labrum in the first half against the Broncs. Cluess said he’d know more about the injury Monday morning, but the numbness had subsided. The injury wasn’t shocking; this is something Smyth has dealt with frequently in recent years.
Looking to Monday night’s MAAC championship game, there is some history to peek at. Iona and St. Peter’s (19-13) will meet for the fourth time in a MAAC title game. The Gaels have a 2-1 edge, having won the 1982 championship in overtime, 66-61, and the one five years ago, 80-61. The Peacocks defeated Iona in ’91, 64-58. Iona swept St. Peter's this season.
Iona (22-10) is definitely loose (more on that in a sec), and there a couple of themes and story lines with them heading into the title game. Chief among them: the culmination, the complete turnaround of a program that went 2-28 four years ago and was historically inept. That building process was led by Kevin Willard, who was hired by Seton Hall last spring. An NCAA bid within four years? That ship-steering isn’t easily done in mid-major basketball.
A second theme, if you will, is a familial one. St. Peter’s Wesley Jenkins and Iona’s Jermel Jenkins are brothers. They’ll battle each other and no doubt talk some trash in Bridgeport Monday night.
“It’s a family feud; it’s always a joy to go against each other,” Jermel Jenkins said. “I’m going to look at it as just another game, even though it’s not. It’ll be good to keep it (an NCAA tournament berth) in the family somehow.”
Jermel Jenkins also said this is the first time he and his brother have ever faced off on opposite teams in meaningful competition. Jermel lit up Rider for 20 off the bench Sunday night.
Iona and St. Peter’s couldn’t be much more different from each other, from styles to body language. The Gaels have the 11th-best effective field goal shooting percentage in the country. St. Peter’s pays its rent by making teams’ shoot terribly. In the postgame from their win of Fairfield, the Peacock players were direct and rigid. Happy, but definitely businesslike.
Iona was the opposite. Four players and Cluess packed on to the tiny platform in the media room at the Arena at Harbor Yard. Gaels senior Michael Glover brought his 2-year-old son up with him. The prescient moment of the press conference came when Jenkins was asked how he was able to score 20 off the bench.
“Luck of the draw when the shots went in,” Jenkins said with a smile and a chuckle.
Mike Glover Jr. let out a wistful youngster’s laugh, forcing the press corps to follow his lead.
The two teams are familiar with each other, and have been rooting for the other to make it to the MAAC finals. So it shall be.
“We’re friendly with a lot of them,” Iona’s Scott Machado said. “They’re on the same floor as us in the hotel. And when we came back from the win, they were all cheering for us.”
Machado thought he could get away with only that quote. Fortunately, his head coach interjected and offered up an incredible anecdote about the teams’ dynamic. You see, in the late hours at Bridgeport’s downtown Marriott, two ambitious teams had … a dance-off.
“Can I finish that story? Because Scott left a part out,” Cluess said. “Last night, at one end of the hall was St. Peter’s, and one end was us. They were having a dance-off in the hallway.”
Iona’s players swear it won the dance-off. Either way, what an image.
And it's one more victory to go, then the last one standing gets the biggest dance of all.
Posted by Matt Norlander
Here is the my postgame interview with Cluess.
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