Iona (1-0) made a statement in last week's 65-58 opening night win over the Denver Pioneers (0-1) that it has reloaded for another NCAA Tournament run built around senior guard Lamont "Momo" Jones and junior swing-man Sean Armand.
After Mike Glover, Scott Machado and much of a talented team graduated in May after playing in the NCAA tournament "First Four" game in March, many long-time Gael followers though it would be rebuilding time in New Rochelle for another NCAA run two or three years in the future. That is the way for mid-majors or the bottom dwellers in the major conferences: stack a lineup with upperclassmen pointing towards a key year to take a run for the top.
Head coach Tim Cluess and his assistant coaches Jared Grasso, Bill O'Keefe and Zak Boisvert went out and recruited nine new players, a mix of transfers, junior college players and two true freshmen.
Among the key additions are swingman 6'5" Tre Bowman, who was originally targeted for Penn State, senior guard Curtis Dennis, who transferred from Toledo, and junior 6'9", 240 pound forward Shawn Jackson, who played for Murray State before attending junior college in Florida. Another big man addition is sophomore David Laury, who is expected to be eligible to play at the completion of the first semester.
Key good news for the Gaels was the news that Iowa State transfer Tavon Sledge, a 25 PPG player at Half Hallow Hills West on Long Island, had been cleared to play this year. Sledge had joined Iona with the thought he would have a shot at point guard after "Momo" Jones graduated. Sledge will a chance to play alongside Jones in the backcourt.
Iona College, looking to improve on last year’s 25-win season and at large bid into the NCAA tournament, survived a second-half surge by Denver University to win the Nov. 10 season opener at home.
For the Gaels, it was a tale of two halves. The first half started with a bang. Senior guard and team captain Lamont “Momo” Jones put Iona on the board first with a lay-in, then added a three-point shot to give Iona a 5-2 lead with 16:05 left to play of the first half.
And the maroon and gold never looked back from there, lighting up the scoreboard with a 15-2 run, finishing a dominating first half with a 40-17 lead.
Junior guard and team captain Sean Armand led Iona in first half scoring with 13 points. They shot 14-23 as a team, hitting all seven free throws and knocking down 5 of 6 three-pointers.
But Coach Tim Cluess, now in his third season as Iona’s head coach, praised his first-half defense.
“It’s all about our defense,” said Cluess. “In the first half we really had all our rotations down well.”
But then the defense broke down in the second half and gave up open shots, said Cluess. And Denver took full advantage and exploded for 41 points in the final 20 minutes to make the game close.
“In the second half…we seemed to lose guys. They are a great shooting team. In the first half they didn’t make (their shots), but I think that’s because we contested everything,” said Cluess. In the second half “…we gave them that extra step and once we gave them that extra step, they knocked it down.”
Iona’s second-half slide coincided with Armand’s absence from the lineup. Foul trouble reduced him to a vocal spectator on the bench. Cluess acknowledged not having him on the court had a huge effect on the team and exposed a weakness of the Gaels’ offense.
“He’s not only a threat to shoot, but he’s a threat to drive and with Momo handling the ball, there’s no threat of the wing and it’s a lot easier to defend us,” said Cluess.
Despite all the second half struggles, Iona never relinquished the lead. A big reason why was a clutch,
demonstrative three-point shot by Jones that ignited the crowd into a frenzy and swung the momentum back into Iona’s favor. He followed that shot up with a lay-in 18 seconds later to give his team a 64-53 advantage with 3:31 left to play in the game.
“They were plays I had to make to win the game,” Jones said, who finished with 20 points.
Sophomore guard Tavon Sledge set up that dramatic three with a steal and the assist.
Sledge, a transfer student from Iowa State who was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA that allows him to play the 2012-2013 season, will be an exciting player to watch as the season unfolds. He
had an early impact on his new team and impressed his head coach with his energy, quickness, athleticism and play making ability.
“He had seven rebounds. He led us in rebounds at 5’9”. Defensively in the first half, he’s blocking jump shots from guys that are 6’3”, 6’5”,” said Cluess. “When things were getting stagnate, we were talking about flowing the ball, and all of a sudden Sledge gets the ball and breaks everyone down and goes in for a layup…And he’s only going to get better and better.”
Denver’s 6’6” junior forward Chris Udofia was the Preseason All-SBC First Team member as well as the 2011-2012 SBC Defensive Player of the Year and All-SBC First Team, and he did not disappoint.
Udofia finished with 20 points and six rebounds, leading the Pioneers in both categories.
Iona’s next game will be at St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in the eight team Paradise Jam. The Gaels first round opponent will be Quinnipiac on Friday Nov. 16 at 9 p.m. The winner will play the winner of Connecticut and Wake Forrest on Sunday evening. The tournament championship game will be on Tuesday evening.
A sad note from the Iona community that former Gael assistant coach Kenny Williamson passed away at age 65 from cancer. Williamson coached at Iona under Jim Valvano and Pat Kennedy. Currently he served as the assistant coach/general manager of the NBA Memphis Grizzlies. A Vietnam veteran, coach Williamson was a native of Harlem.
Chris Eberhart gathered quotes and contributed to this article. Ken Kraetzer covers Iona basketball and West Point football for WVOX 1460 AM in New Rochelle, NY. Twitter @SAL50NYRadio