Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Friday Night in New Rochelle as Iona Downs St Peter's

Sometimes, the original plans you make fall through and as a result, something new arises.  Case in point was last night.  Originally, I was supposed to have dinner with my friend Dani in Astoria.   Then the weather forecast today predicted snow, as much as possibly six inches.   So we decided to cancel the day prior and reschedule.

As I sat in my office yesterday morning and looked at the very light snow falling down outside, I checked the forecast and it changed the predicted snowfall to 2-3 inches.   And as I looked at the live radar map on the website, I wondered if we would even have that in the New York area (and for most parts, we didn't have really anything, sans Connecticut).   I decided to see what men's college basketball games were being played Friday evening, figuring I would watch something on TV.  I changed the view on the WWL site from Top 25 to the MAAC, knowing that the MAAC usually plays a Friday- Sunday schedule.  Sure enough, Iona was home hosting Saint Peter's.   Forget TV watching, I now had my plans for Friday night.

None of my friends could make it last night for the game in New Rochelle.  But I was determined to go to New Rochelle as I had many times for Iona Women's games (and some Men's games too).  I had been feeling lately that my site was too Hofstra centric as far as coverage and I wanted another team to write about for my next article.  And being a big fan of Iona's coach Tim Cluess and having seen in person the throttling the Gaels gave the Pride, currently the first place team in the CAA, it made perfect sense.   Friday Night in New Rochelle.

Now you never know what kind of traffic you will get on a Friday night in New York.  When I drive to Iona on a Saturday or Sunday during the day, it's usually forty minutes.  But throw in a delay on the Cross Island around the Throgs Neck Bridge, or traffic on the Whitestone or the Hutchinson River Parkway, which is how I go to Iona, and the trip can be easily as much as a hour.  And throw in a little wet/icy road surface and chances are there will be slowdowns somewhere.

This night, there was no such traffic, delays or even slowdowns.  Of course, there was also the familiar pain in my gut between exits 2 and 3 ever since December 28, 2009 when someone decided to play Kurt Busch and spin me out at 55 mph.  Thankfully no NASCAR replay this night.  But I could tell I was very tired as my eyes were heavy and I had to focus to keep them open on the way up the Hutch.

So I got to the Iona campus in forty minutes, parked my car in the parking garage, and realized I forgot to do something - record the Butler-Cleveland State game.  I called my wife to have her record the game and talked about how tired I was.  She said to be careful.  Reassuring her, I said I would get some caffeine, would be careful and thanked her for the favor.  Then, I got my ticket and sat center court in the bleachers on the team benches side.

When I sat in my seat, I noticed there were the game day notes put in most of the season ticket holders' seats.  A nice little touch by the Gaels Athletic Department.  And knowing that some people would shy away from the game due to the supposed inclement weather (well it was very inclement if you were in Connecticut), I took a copy from one of the seats for myself.

Now you can learn a lot from a team's game notes.  And here's some of the facts I learned from Iona's game notes.  First, going into the game vs St Peter's, the Gaels are 7-0 when they score more than 79 points. When they score between 70-79 points, Iona is 1-4.  When they score between 60-69 points, they are 0-2.  Basically that tells you that Tim Cluess wants his team to play a fast paced high scoring game, as evident by their 87-62 win over Hofstra last week.

Also, Iona is 8-2 when leading at the half and 0-4 when trailing at the half.  Obviously, that shows the Gaels aren't very good coming from behind.  Further evidence of this fact is that outside of the loss to Cleveland State by ten points, all of Iona's other five losses are by six points or less.  Now what could account for so many close losses?

Well, what could account for that is Iona shoots 64 percent from the line. But if you read page 8 of the game notes, you will see even further evidence of why free throw shooting has probably been the killer in those close games.  In free throw shooting with less than five minutes remaining in a game, Iona is 43 for 77 from the line (55.8 percent).  With less than two minutes remaining in a game, the Gaels are 26 for 44 from the line (59 percent).  And finally, with less than one minute in the game, Iona is 18 of 31 from the line (58 percent).   It's hard to overcome free throw shooting like that and win close games.

After reading the game notes, I left my seat, went downstairs and hit the restroom.  After I got out of the restroom, I went to the concession stand and bought myself an iced tea to wake up.  I ended up drinking the entire bottle downstairs because at Iona, you can't have food or drink in the stands.  Yes, I kid you not.  When I got back, someone was sitting in my general admission seat, so I decided to go over to the less crowded opposite side bleachers and sit center court.

Despite Iona not being a very good free throw shooting team,  I had been very impressed with their win against Hofstra.  Thus, I believe the Gaels to be a good team overall.  And I was excited to have a second opportunity to watch Michael Glover, perhaps the best player in the New York City metro area not named Charles Jenkins.   Glover came into the game averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds per game, shooting 64 percent from the field with nine double-doubles on the season.

As the game started, it was clear that Saint Peter's read the game notes well, and wanted to dictate a slow pace.  Iona would however score the first four points as who else, Glover, scored the first basket of the game.  But the Peacocks would find holes in the Gaels' zone defense and score the next nine points of the game as Wesley Jenkins hit two jumpers during the run to put St Peter's up 9-4 with 15 minutes left in the first half.

Iona would return fire and score ten of the next twelve points.  Randy Dezouvre's layup put Iona up 14-11.  But again, Saint Peter's would continue to slow the pace down and Nick Leon would score five of the Peacocks next nine points as they would go up 20-16 with 8:42 left in the first half.  The pace favored the Peacocks and the Gaels were clearly struggling on offense.

With a little less than six minutes left, the pace started picking up and advantage went to Iona.  The Gaels would come back and take the lead 25-24 on a Michael Glover layup.  Saint Peters' would regain the lead as Wesley Jenkins hit two three pointers to give them a 30-27 lead.  But another Glover layup and a Sean Armand three put Iona back ahead 32-30.   But the game would be tied 34 all before Jermel Jenkins' jumper with one second on the clock put Iona up at the half 36-34.

As the Iona Pep Band belted out good renditions of "Immigrant Song" and the James Bond theme at halftime, if you wanted to see who the leading scorers were, all you had to do was know your jersey numbers and take a look at either of the scoreboards on the ends of the court. You would see Glover had 16 points, while Wes Jenkins kept Saint Peter's in the game with 10.  One of the stats that also stood out and was not surprising was Iona shooting 33 percent from the line (2 of 6 at the time).  And that stat wouldn't get much better in the second half.

When the second half started, the question was could St Peter's slow the pace back down enough to keep the score in the low sixties because they couldn't keep up otherwise with Iona.  And for nearly the first five minutes, the Peacocks did exactly that.  Only two points were scored, a Steven Samuels layup that tied the game at 36.   It looked like St Peter's had the advantage.  But in reality, the Gael's half court defense had tightened up on the Peacocks. And it was just a matter of time before Iona made its move.

Then the Gaels hit the turbo button with 15:15 left and went on a 10-0 run.  Scott Machado started it with a layup and was fouled.  Of course he missed the free throw.  But it didn't matter on this evening.  Rashon Dwight would steal the ball, then hit a three pointer.   Sean Armand would follow with another trey and then finally, Dwight banked a three pointer (no, I don't think he called it).   Five minutes later, it was 49-39 Iona with 10:13 left.

Iona's spacing on offense is tremendous.  As a result, they can work it inside to Glover, or nail open threes as they did in that 10-0 run.   It often forces teams like St Peter's who went into the zone to switch to man to man.  That happened as well in the Hofstra game, where the Pride played zone in the first half but came out and played man to man.   When that happens, the Gaels have you right where they want you, because their offense excels best against man to man defense.

Well, St Peter's did exactly that and as they did against Hofstra, Iona took full advantage.  The lead increased to sixteen, 55-39, as Rashon Dwight would hit a three point play then later hit one of two more free throws.  After Kyle Smith and Machado hit three pointers, the Gaels' lead was seventeen 66-49 with four minutes left.   The Peacocks could start warming up the bus

You know a game is over when people in the crowd who had been paying close attention to the game start talking about other things besides the game.  Case in point was three young kids behind me got on the subject of how tall Lebron James is.  One kid thought he was 6 foot 9, another kid thought he was 6 foot 7.  One asked his mom, and she said 6 foot 7, but the other kid didn't agree with it.  Of course, I entered the fray by turning around and saying that he was 6 foot 8 and that I would verify that for them.  I went on my semi smartphone and Googled the search terms. I got the answer and showed them...he is 6 foot 8.  Thus ended the discussion.

Iona started emptying the bench with two minutes remaining.  The only starter left on the floor for Iona was Smyth.  Sitting on the bench now, Glover had his 23 points.  His field goal percentage is now 66 percent on the season after he went 11 of 12 from the field.  Machado, one of the top assist leaders in the country had 10 points and 8 assists.  The Gaels shot 52 percent from the field while holding the Peacocks to 35 percent.  But the free throw shooting still needs a lot of work as  Iona shot a dismal 9 of 20 from the line.

At the end of the game,  Iona got the ball with the shot clock turned off and dribbled out the remaining seconds.  I took a picture of the scoreboard, then  left my seat as some others did to beat the rest of the remaining crowd.  A crowd of 1,359 got to see an impressive game by the home team Gaels.

Iona had a very solid conference win, beating Saint Peter's 70-52.  With the win, the Gaels were now tied with the Peacocks for second in the MAAC at 3-1 (Fairfield is first at 4-0).  To show how wacky conference play is, Siena who defeated Iona earlier in the week at home in Albany, went up to Canisius who had lost all three games in conference prior to last night.  Sure enough, the Golden Griffiths beat the Saints 62-61 and denied Siena (2-2 now in the MAAC) a chance to be tied for second in the MAAC.

As I took the forty minute drive home, there were no worries about me falling asleep at the wheel.  I was now fully awake in the car.  My battery had been recharged by iced tea, great live college basketball and now some good classic rock on the radio.    Not bad for impromptu solo plans on a Friday night.

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