Saint Peter's used gritty defense to defeat Iona 62-57 for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship and their first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1995.
This was the Peacocks third MAAC Championship and will be the Jersey City, NJ located team's third trip to the Big Dance. Saint Peter's was the four seed in the MAAC Tournament behind Fairfield, Iona, and Rider. Iona and Rider had beaten Saint Peter's in the last two games of the regular season. But Head Coach John Dunne said the team came together and decided the "Seniors did not want to go out like that". The Peacocks pulled the shocker of the MAAC Tournament with a 62-48 win over Fairfield on their homecourt.
Saint Peter's came out against Iona playing aggressive on both offense and defense in the early going. "We knew we could not beat Iona playing up-tempo like during the regular season," said Dunne, the coach of St. Peter's since 2006.
The Peacocks went out to a 9-5 lead on the Gaels on a three point shot from senior forward Jeron Belin. Iona point guard Scott Machado answered with a three but Belin hit another three from his favorite spot on the right base line corner. Saint Peter's went out to a 18-12 lead on a foul line jumper by sophomore Darius Conley.
Saint Peter's forced Iona to play a lot of half court offense which was not the Gaels style under head coach Tim Cluess. Iona sophomore forward Kyle Smyth was injured running after a loose ball with 1:30 left and did not return. Scott Machado followed with a drive down the foul line to make a two point shot. Jeron Belin made his third three point shot on just three shots to make the half time score 26-20. Iona shot just 34.8 percent in the half well below their season average of 47 percent, the best in the MAAC.
Mike Glover opened the second half with a dunk, but St. Peter's point guard Nick Leon answered with a three pointer. With 13:35 remaining, Senior guard Rashon Dwight made Iona's first three point shot of the day from the left corner to cut the deficit to six at 35-29. With 9:20 left, Mike Glover made a dunk at 9:20 to make the score 37-33. But Saint Peter's answered with an 8-1 run, started by a layup by sophomore guard Yvon Raymond, followed by a two point jumper by Nick Leon to make score 42-33.
A three point goal by Wesley Jenkins followed giving St. Peter's its first double digit lead at 45-33 with 7:39 left. After a Jeron Belin layup, Mike Glover made a three point play on a drive to the basket making two and drawing a foul. Glover converted the foul shot to get Iona back to ten down 47-37. Saint Peter's hit a two which was answered by a Glover drive to the hoop to make it 49-40 with 3:47 left.
At 53-45 Glover missed free throw, but made the second to bring Iona within six. A steal of the inbound pass gave Iona senior Trinity Fields a chance for an inside shot he made to bring Iona with four at 53-48 at 1:40 left. Iona junior forward Randy Dezouvre in the game for defense on the full court press was able to intercept a to set up Glover for another inside basket to bring Iona with four with less than a minute left.
Saint Peter's made six straight foul shots in the last 27 seconds to hold off a farce comeback effort by the Gaels. Nick Leon made the first two to make it a six point game 58-52. Scott Machado added a three point shot with 18 seconds left to bring the Gaels with three at 60-57. Off an Iona foul on the press, Saint Peter's Wesley Jenkins then made two straight free throws to ice the 62-57 victory.
Jeron Belin led Saint Peter's with 17 points on 7 of 13 shooting from the field including three of four three-point shot attempts. Nick Leon had 15 points and Wesley Jenkins had 14. The win was their20th of the season against 13 losses.
For Iona now 22-11 on the season, Mike Glover had a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Scott Machado had 15 points and six assists. Rashon Dwight also had a double-double with ten points and 11 rebounds.
The Peacocks now can enjoy a great week of anticipation for "Selection Sunday" while watching the Big East play just across the Hudson River. For Iona a disappointing end to their MAAC season and a wait by the phone for an invitation from the NIT or another post season tournament not named NCAA.
Ken Kraetzer covers Iona basketball and West Point football for WVOX 1460 in New Rochelle, NY.