On the surface, it may seem concerning to Iona fans that the Gaels once again had trouble taking down the Marist Red Foxes. Iona has built themselves a legitimate at-large resume by beating high level mid major programs like Harvard, Hofstra, Liberty and, of course, upsetting Alabama, a consensus top 15 in the country. As a result, the public views Iona as a team that should be far superior than the rest of the MAAC, with the possible exception of Monmouth, who has also had a great deal of success in their out of conference games. With this in mind, it is natural to find it a bit worrisome that Iona has played two close games with Marist, an average MAAC team. That being said, when you take a deeper look at the statistics of the game and how Iona came back and won, you will feel a lot better and more confident than you may right now.
Probably the most eye-opening statistic from this game is that Iona shot 13.6% (3/22) from beyond the arc. I don’t care who you’re playing, it will always be difficult to win when you shoot that poorly. The shooting struggles ultimately limited what the Gaels could do on offense and they were stagnant in the half-court for almost the entire game. The starting lineup was collectively 1/12 from three, yet they still went into halftime tied at 31-31. Iona is able to make up for cold offense with elite defense. The Gaels had 10 steals and 7 blocks in the game.
A lot of this elite defensive play is attributed to Rick Pitino’s signature full-court press. Iona used the full-court press more in this game than any other game this season, and it proved to be a weapon that Iona can lean on when they need a spark. Walter Clayton Jr. had 3 steals, Nelly Junior Joseph, Quinn Slazinski, and Ryan Myers each had 2 steals, and Elijah Joiner added one more. I should also include that Tyson Jolly, who made big offensive plays all game long, was also a pest on defense. The thing that stood out to me most is that Iona showed no signs of fatigue despite pressing for such an extended period of time. This speaks volumes about both their conditioning and depth, which allows for Pitino to sub players in and out to give them short breathers. It should be noted that this press had so much success in a game where Berrick JeanLouis, their best defender, was unavailable (COVID-19). It’s exciting to think about the potential of this full-court press when Berrick is at the forefront.
Offensively, there is reason for Iona fans to feel optimistic after this game because, despite the horrid shooting night, the Gaels were able to make big shots down the stretch and put themselves in position to win the game. Tyson Jolly took it upon himself to find a way to score whenever they needed a bucket, and Elijah Joiner, who struggled shooting, did not sulk and instead made big plays in crunch time, including a three-pointer with 2:47 left to bring the Gaels within one point and put them in better position to take the lead. It’s such a luxury to have senior guards who are such great leaders and competitors. We knew these two transfers were both coming in as extremely talented players, but character and will to win are never guarentees. Clearly, Pitino was looking for players with the right mindset on top of their skill set; that is what he got in Jolly and Joiner.
All in all, playing another close game against Marist doesn’t look great on paper, but there are more positives to take from this game than negatives. This team continues to thrive in high pressure situations and win close games, and they still have so much room to grow as a unit. Both of Iona’s games this weekend, at St. Peter’s on Friday and at Monmouth on Sunday, we’re postponed due to COVID-19 issues in the opposing teams’ programs. As of right now, the Gaels’ next game is at Fairfield on Tuesday, Janurary 11th at 2:00 PM, and it remains to be seen which out of conference opponent Pitino might schedule at some point this month. Let’s hope Iona stays healthy and continues developing and growing as the season continues progressing. The MAAC is a competitive league this season, and every team will be looking to be at their best when they play the Gaels. I don’t expect this to be the last close game Iona plays, but I do expect them to continue to embrace pressure and come out victorious every time they step on the floor.