When the men’s NCAA Tournament bracket is announced Sunday, one school from the Hudson Valley will be back in the field for the third straight year.
Lately, if it’s March, it means little Iona is going to be on the national stage with the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world.
The private Catholic college of about 4,000 students in New Rochelle in Westchester County has had plenty of reasons to celebrate its basketball team in recent years.
On Monday in Albany, the Gaels — under eighth-year coach Tim Cluess — won their third straight MAAC tournament, earning the league’s automatic bid to the dance.
Picked first in the preseason poll, Iona had an up-and-down year, starting 1-4. Cluess said at that point, he wasn’t sure if Iona would ever get its second win.
But as usual, the team saved its best for March.
Iona caught a break when the top three seeds went down early and became the third 4-seed to win the conference tourney — the Gaels also did it in 2013 — by beating No. 6 Fairfield 83-71.
“When you’re going through some of the difficult times, you wonder how your season is going to end up, and you wonder if those difficult times are going to lead to a special ending, or if they’re going to have you fall apart,” Cluess said. “When it leads to a special ending, for me, I know that my players can take that for the rest of their life and realize, we worked through some adversity and we found a way to succeed. And that’s what it’s about off the court, more than even on the court, but they did it here, so it’s something they can always fall back on.”
The Gaels notched their record 11th league championship, becoming just the third team in MAAC history to win three in a row.
How have the Gaels done it? With athleticism and a high-octane offense that can get into the lane, play above the rim, and bury 3-pointers.
This year, Iona also looked to some transfer students to keep its winning tradition alive.
Roland Griffin scored a career-high 29 points in the title game after beginning his career at Illinois State and Midland College, while Zach Lewis — who came to Iona as a graduate student by way of Canisius and UMass — scored 20.
Lewis was all smiles after Monday’s title.
“One thing Coach always told us is basketball is the purest thing we have, and if you work hard, we’re going to get something out of it,” Lewis said. “And we just got the trophy so I’m just excited.”
Now, the next step is for Iona to win an NCAA Tournament game, which it hasn’t done since the field expanded in 1985. Likely to be around a 15 seed, Cluess says the Gaels will be ready.
“It’s all about the matchups, and who you get in the first round and where you’re playing it, and obviously we’re going to go against some giant because I know the type of year our league had and we had,” Cluess said. “We’re just thrilled to be going and we’re going to give it our best shot no matter who we play.”