Iona secures place in history with third straight MAAC title

Iona secures place in history with third straight MAAC title

ALBANY — Another net was cut down, and another banner will be raised.

It’s just another year at Iona.

The fourth-seeded Gaels staked their claim as one of the great dynasties in MAAC history Monday night, securing their third straight conference tournament championship, and fifth NCAA Tournament appearance of the past seven years, with an 83-71 win over sixth-seeded Fairfield at the Times Union Center.

Iona (20-13) became the third team in league history to three-peat, and the first since Siena (2008-10), with coach Tim Cluess improving to 4-3 in title games. The Gaels, who made their sixth straight championship game appearance, will likely by a 15-seed in the Big Dance.

Just over a week ago, Iona was reeling, having gone 5-6 to close the worst regular season of Cluess’ tenure, but the Gaels rediscovered their swag upstate, as the top-three seeds fell in their first tournament games, and helped highlight how difficult Iona’s year-after-year dominance truly is.

Iona opened by knocking off rival Manhattan in the quarterfinals, and overcame a 14-point second-half deficit to top St. Peter’s in the semifinals, before ending Fairfield’s (17-16) seven-game win streak, and keeping it from its first NCAA Tournament in 21 years.

The Gaels became the lowest-seed to win the MAAC Tournament since also winning it as a four-seed in 2013, and have now won at least 20 games in each of Cluess’ eight seasons in New Rochelle.

Cluess, of course, has done it with drastically different rosters almost every season, often relying on experienced transfers to seamlessly slide into his system. After losing its top-three scorers from last season’s team, Iona appropriately earned its latest championship because of career-best games from this season’s fifth-leading scorer Roland Griffin (29 points, seven rebounds, four blocks), and sixth-leading scorer Zach Lewis (20 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four steals).

Despite splitting two regular-season meetings, Iona’s comfort and Fairfield’s inexperience playing for such high stakes showed early on, as the Gaels took a 15-8 lead, and the Stags committed eight turnovers in the first eight minutes.

Despite the perimeter-centric offense of Iona hitting just 1-of-8 3-pointers in the first half, while getting a total of 10 points from its top-four scorers, the Gaels kept control by riding Griffin and Lewis, who combined for 30 points in the opening half.

MAAC leading-scorer Tyler Nelson (25 points) wrestled the lead back on multiple occasions, and briefly gave Fairfield a six-point lead. The senior scored 17 first-half points, and hit 4-of-5 3-pointers, but Iona dominated the paint, taking a 43-37 lead at halftime.

Then, Iona did what it has done all decade, outsprinting an opponent helpless to keep up. The Gaels immediately took control after the break, and held a 20-point lead with just over 10 minutes remaining. Fairfield slowly — too slowly — chipped away, making it 75-69 with one minute left. Iona iced the game at the line, finishing 23-of-27, as the “three-peat” chants started in the stands.

For the third straight year, the odds were against Iona. Two years ago, the Gaels needed to knock off top-seeded Monmouth in the title game. Last year, it required beating Siena in overtime on the Saints’ home floor.

This time, it hinged on the Gaels forgetting so much of what happened during an unusually uneven season — and remembering this is their time of year.

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