Iona College’s offensive firepower was on display Friday night at the Hynes Center, as the Gaels knocked off Fairfield University 84-73 to remain tied with Niagara for the best in-conference record (6-1) in the MAAC. However, the Gaels' 12-6 overall record is better than Niagara's (10-8).
Fairfield shut down the nation’s fifth-leading scorer, Iona senior guard Lamont “Momo” Jones, in the first half, holding him to five points.
“They took Momo out of the game early in the first half,” said Iona head coach Tim Cluess. “They were denying him and doubling him every opportunity they had, just trying to deny him touches.”
Unfortunately for Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson, the Iona offense is led by one of the most prolific NCAA Division I scoring duos. And the second half of that tandem, junior guard Sean Armand, carried the Gaels through the first half with 15 points, the only player on either team to be in double digits at the half.
Iona hurt itself early, missing six of its first eight free throws, which allowed Fairfield to maintain a slim lead. But Armand’s three with 6:41 left in the first half tied the game at 24, which was followed by junior guard DaShawn Gomez’s three, giving Iona a 27-24 advantage.
The first half ended with a 41-30 Iona lead.
But Fairfield came out scoring in the second half, opening with a 9-1 run. The Stags got as close as three, 53-50, when Gomez and Jones hit back-to-back threes.
The remaining 12 minutes of the game belonged to Jones, who scored 16 of his 22 second-half points down the stretch to preserve the Gaels’ win.
Will Iona College make the NCAA tournament this year?
But one glaring weakness for Iona was its defense, or lack thereof.
“We showed we could score, but we got to play defense for a whole game,” Armand said.
They gave up 26 points to Fairfield’s senior forward and leading scorer Derek Needham, and 12 points apiece to freshman guard Marcus Gilbert and junior forward Maurice Barrow.
When asked why the defense was struggling, Armand replied, “It's effort and lack of focus. We have to key in on defense. The same way we have fun on offense, we have to have fun on defense. We have to have a will to want to play defense, and I don’t think we have that will as a whole.”
Iona won despite being without senior forward Taaj Ridley, who didn’t play because he was in violation of team academic policies. Ridley was riding a hot streak, averaging 9.3 points per game and 6.1 rebounds over his last seven games.
Sophomore forward David Laury III played 33 minutes in his absence. He struggled offensively, shooting 2-of-12 from the floor and 5-of-11 from the line, but his 14 rebounds were more than double the amount of the second-leading rebounder (English, with six).
Cluess said Ridley's return date is not known at this time.
But the Gaels need him back soon. They will be on the road for four of the next five games, and Cluess said this will be a big test for this Iona team.
“Road games in this league are wars, home games are wars, so imagine what it’s like on the road. But we will find out a lot about ourselves by the time we come back from that,” Cluess said.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.