Saturday, February 25, 2012

Horns, Hoops and First Place on the Line (Recap of Fairfield vs. Iona)

Last night was the second day of my four day weekend of hoops.  Thursday night, I was at St Joseph's in Patchogue where unfortunately the number one seeded Eagles were shot down by the Purchase Panthers.  Then yesterday, my older son Matthew and I made the familiar trip up to New Rochelle to Iona College.

Before we could get to the campus of Iona, we had to travel in rainy, slick conditions as the remnants of the Saskatchewan Screamer came down on the New York City metro area.  Adding to the fun was a knucklehead on the Whitestone Bridge who kept alternating between the left and center lanes at seemingly his whim.  Either he was very drunk or very clueless.  I was one of several people that went all the way over to the right lane to avoid him.

Of course Matthew, the intrepid little six year old that he is, wisely took the opportunity to sleep the entire way from North Bellmore to New Rochelle.  Thus he snoozed while his daddy was yelling at the idiot that was trying to turn the Whitestone into a NASCAR wreck.  Matthew didn't wake up until we were in the Iona parking garage.  Had I known that the Iona Will Call was not open yet,  I would have let him sleep another fifteen minutes.  But he was as excited as me to see this game last night.

You couldn't ask for a bigger atmosphere on the last weekend of the regular season.  This was the battle for first place in the MAAC between Fairfield, the defending regular season champion, vs. Iona, the preseason favorite to win the MAAC.   The Hynes Center was sold out and as Nick Guerriero, the Assistant Sports Director and Women's Basketball Play By Play Announcer at Iona (and a good guy too), stated to me that they were turning people away from the ticket booth.  To top it all off, the game was being televised nationally on ESPNU.

The Hynes Center was packed to the rim. As I surveyed the gym shortly before the team introductions, it was a college basketball fan's dream.  Over two thousand people tightly fit into a small gym.  A mostly partisan crowd buzzing with the anticipation of another MAAC regular season championship, which would lead to another banner being hung in a venue that has seen its share of basketball history.  To say the Hynes Center was electric would be the understatement of the year.

And the cherry on top is getting to hear the wonderful Iona Pep Band. What makes this brass band so good is they don't play a lot of the usual tripe you hear other bands play.  You won't hear the Iona Pep Band play the "Final Countdown" or "Crazy Train".  Yes, they play recent songs from artists like Lady Gaga.  But they also play a lot of songs that fit a brass band perfectly; a lot of Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, Santana and they even sneak in some Led Zeppelin (like they did last night).  And if you are old school like me, they often play TV and movie theme songs.  Their rendition of "I Dream of Jeannie" is a wonderful, bouncy tune.

I didn't remember the name of the first song they played.  But I immediately knew the second song they played, "Fantasy" by Earth, Wind and Fire.  Shortly thereafter, they surprisingly played "Don't Stop Believing".  Normally they leave that for the end of the game when the score is close.  But I guess they wanted to get the crowd going on what was going to be a momentous occasion.

One of the things I have often noticed about the Hynes Center is that as much as I love the Iona folks, the PA volume is much too loud.  It's like that at a lot of college gyms and arenas, but outside of the obnoxiously loud Spiro Athletic Center PA system, the Hynes Center PA system seems to stick out.  So it was ironic during the introductions that one of the speakers kept going out.  It was the brass band gods trying to tell the Iona folks that they have a perfectly good pep band and they should just turn off the system and let the pep band play.

Since the wonderful people at the World Wide Leader of Sports schedule games on top of each other at ESPNU, often the preceding game runs over.  Especially when it's the physical, foul prone Horizon League games. Thus the game start was delayed while waiting for the end of the Butler - Valparaiso game.  However, the silver lining was that  the fans were treated to a lot of good Iona Pep Band selections during the wait.

First, the band fired up a Stevie Wonder tune.  Then they went into Frankenstein. It's one of my favorite renditions of that song.   For such a small band; they have maybe at most eight to ten members, the sound they put out is just so good.

I share a love of the Iona Pep Band with friend Jaden Daly, the play by play announcer for St. Francis and the author of Daly Dose of Hoops. who is also a fellow member of John Templon's NYC Power Poll.  Jaden was covering the game last night for his site and as we were tweeting the song selections, Jaden came up with a bet.  The bet was when the Iona Pep Band would play my favorite song and one of Jaden's favorites, Steely Dan's "Peg".   I said it would be at the under twelve minute media timeout.  Jaden took the over.  The bet was a St John's ticket for me (Jaden is a St John's alum) if I won and if I lost, a first level ticket for Hofstra.

While waiting for the start of the game, several of us were keeping track of the Loyola - Rider game that was on ESPN2.  Novar Gadson hit a three point play late in the game and the Broncs knocked off the Greyhounds.  That meant if the Gaels defeated the Stags here, Iona would clinch the MAAC regular season championship.

Though it meant the end of a great Iona Pep Band song set, the Butler -Valpo game finally ended and we had the tipoff of our game.  Feeding off the crowd's energy, first place Iona came out and scored the first four points.  But second place Fairfield, who had come into the game winners of nine of their last eleven games, responded with a 9-0 run.  Derek Needham nailed two three pointers and the Stags were up early 9-4.  Needham would leave the game shortly thereafter with an injury and would not return.

After a Michael Glover three point play made the score 9-7 Fairfield, a short time later we had the under sixteen minute media timeout.   This led to the Iona Pep Band playing Rick James "Brickhouse". The band was on a roll and a Stags player was about to go on a roll as well.

Senior forward Rakim Sanders is Fairfield's leading scorer.  He averages 16.5 points and 8.2 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.   After the under sixteen media timeout, Sanders took over.  He would score five of the Stags next eight points and added an assist.  Fairfield had an 18-11 lead going into the under twelve minute media timeout. Sanders had a double double in the first half alone with twelve points and eleven rebounds.

As soon as the teams left the court, I heard the first few sweet chords from the pep band and I knew the song .  Yes, the Iona Pep Band came through and played Steely Dan's "Peg".  I had won the bet with Jaden but I told him I was going to take him to a Hofstra game anyway.   Just hearing my favorite Iona Pep Band song was victory enough for me.

Coming off the timeout, the Stags extended the lead to 21-13.  But the Gaels sped up the pace of the game to their liking and scored the next six points.  That got the home Iona crowd going.  Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson was forced to call timeout.  This led to the pep band playing the James Bond Theme Song.

The Gaels actually tied the game at twenty five on a free throw by Glover.  But Sanders buried a three pointer which put the Stags back out in front.  Iona would actually take the lead, 29-28 on a Glover layup, his ninth and tenth points of the first half.  This lead to the Pep Band playing Jaden's favorite song, "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Fairfield would respond as they outscored Iona 10-4 for the rest of the half.  It might have been more, but a good move by Iona Head Coach Tim Cluess kept the deficit at five.  During Scott Machado's free throw attempts with five seconds left in the half, Cluess gathered the rest of the players by the Iona bench.  I had a good view of Cluess making a hacking motion with his hand.  He was telling his players to foul a Stags' player immediately since the Gaels had only five team fouls.

After Machado missed his second free throw and Fairfield grabbed the rebound, Kyle Smyth grabbed at Sanders to foul him.  But instead Smyth knocked the ball off Sanders and out of bounds.  Iona had a last second chance to hit a shot before the half, but Smyth's long three point attempt was short.  Fairfield entered the half up 38-33.

At halftime, Iona honored Stanley Hill, a 1959 alumnus who was a starting guard on the Iona basketball team.  In his sophomore season, Hill was supposed to play in a tournament in Owensboro, Kentucky vs. the University of Mississippi.  The Ole Miss coach, Bonnie Graham, informed the tournament committee that he would not have his team play the Gaels if Hill, an African American, was in the lineup. Graham had the support of the University of Mississippi administration.  Iona coach Jim McDermott refused to bench his guard and Ole Miss forfeited the game.  In a touching moment, the Ole Miss players sought out Hill at the hotel that night and apologized to him for what happened.   The ceremony for Hill at halftime, which included several other Iona basketball alumni, was equally as touching.

Towards the end of halftime, I went over to talk with Guy Falotico, otherwise known as IonaGuyF on Twitter.  While Guy and I were talking about the first half,  the Pep Band was playing "Smells Like Team Spirit".   Another good song, another good rendition.

The second half saw Fairfield jump out to a 42-34 lead.  But Iona would go on a 10-0 run over the next three minutes. Reserve Rashad James provided a lot of energy off the bench for the Gaels. His steal and layup gave Iona a 44-42 lead with about fifteen minutes left.  The Hynes Center was now rocking.

The Pep Band was rocking too.  They fired up their third Earth, Wind and Fire song with "After the Love Has Gone" and followed with another Stevie Wonder tune.  Jaden was right, all that was missing was their version of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" to complete what would have been a great trifecta.  Later they played "I Heard It Through the Grapevine".  That made up for missing out on Zeppelin.

Fairfield wasn't going anywhere and why would they with such great music. The Stags hung in with the Gaels and took a 58-56 lead with eight minutes left. Sean Crawford gave them the lead as he calmly sunk three free throws after being fouled by Taaj Ridley.

Enter one Sean Armand.  Earlier in the season, I was at Madison Square Garden when the sophomore guard set an Iona and MAAC record for most three pointers in a game with ten in a 95-59 drubbing of Siena.  Armand would channel his Siena performance by burying two straight three pointers to give Iona a 62-56 lead and the Iona fans a reason to cheer raucously.  Meanwhile, the Pep Band played the NBA on NBC theme song and later the Fox Sports theme song during a stop in the action.

Fairfield again wouldn't quit and scored the next seven points.  A Desmond Wade three pointer put Fairfield back up one, 63-62 with about six minutes left.  Also during this run, Iona's star guard, Scott Machado picked up his fourth foul and and headed to the bench.   There was definitely a level of concern running through the Hynes Center crowd.

But Armand was far from finished.  He would score the next nine points for Iona.  His layup put thee Gaels up 71-65 with 2:44 left.   Glover would follow later with a layup to put the Gaels up 73-66 with about fifty seconds.  Desmond Wade hit a three pointer to cut the score down to four, 73-69.  But  the Stags would not get any closer as Iona would win the game and the MAAC Regular Season Championship 77-70.

Armand scored all seventeen of his points in the second half.   As impressive as his performance was against Siena, his performance against Fairfield was more impressive.  With Machado on the bench, Armand took over and won the game for his team.  His three point jumper is a thing of beauty.

 Sanders did his best for Fairfield with twenty two points and twelve rebounds. Ryan Olander also had a nice game with fifteen points  The two combined to shoot seventeen of twenty nine from the field.  But the rest of the team was only ten of twenty nine from the field.  The loss of Needham during the game certainly hurt the Stags.

As for Iona, along with Armand's seventeen points, Glover had thirteen points and Machado had ten points and seven assists.   The key was that the Gaels had more balance than the Stags.  Eight players had six or more points for Iona while only four Fairfield players including Needham had six or more points.

As Matthew, Tieff, who had joined us shortly before game time, and I quickly left the Hynes Center, we thought we might see a court rush.  We were concerned since we were in the front row and having a small child with us, that could be a precarious situation.  But it thankfully never materialized.   It was as if the Iona fans expected to win this game and be in this position, since they were the preseason favorite.

The Gaels and their fans expect their court rush to be after they win the MAAC Tournament Championship in Springfield.  It's good to have standards. I know the Iona Pep Band meets mine.

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