The Iona Gaels are a deep and experienced team, and they are known for a couple of things - liking to get out in transition, and always trying to make an extra pass or two in each offensive possession. Tonight, they were up against a Manhattan Jaspers squad who is just as good in transition, just as good in the post, and just as good at shooting from long range - just not as good at doing it consistently.
The first time these two teams met, the Gaels dominated. A.J. English, who averages 17.9 points per game, only had 14 on the night, but that was also fourth on the team that night. David Laury racked up a gaudy 21 points down low, George Beamon managed only nine points for the Jaspers, and the result was rather lopsided.
Tonight was a different story - in the first half alone, the Jaspers had three separate 8-0 runs and another 9-3 run to end the half. They forced nine turnovers - including three each by Laury and DaShawn Gomez - and pushed the pace. English had more turnovers (2) than points (0), and the Jaspers were led by 17 points from... Emmy Andujar?
Yes, the junior forward made every single one of the seven shots he attempted in the first half. The guy who had averaged eight points per game over his collegiate career to this point took advantage of Iona's struggles with getting back in transition and finished the first half one basket shy of tying his career best. This was great for Manhattan, who lost starting point guard Michael Alvarado eight minutes into the game to a sprained ankle on a layup attempt.
Manhattan's runs were impressive, but so was Iona's long range shooting. At one point late in the half they were 7-for-12 from three-point range, which is probably a big reason the halftime margin wasn't greater than 45-35. However, as Bruce Pearl pointed out, when you are getting your points in runs, halftime can kill you.
Iona came out after halftime with a much more poised and balanced attack, settling into the game. Then Rhamel Brown was called for his third foul, and then Beamon was called for his third foul, and with 11 minutes left a key play unfolded. The Jaspers were up by five, 56-51, with just over 11 minutes left in the game, and Laury, for all his might, could not get a shot to fall. Sophomore forward Ashton Pankey, who starts for the Jaspers but had been riding pine due to Andujar's performance tonight, snagged the rebound.
He inexplicably and nonchalantly held the ball at his side waiting for a teammate to come open, and Laury took the ball right back. That became a three-pointer, which became a turnover, and an and-one. Suddenly their lead was only 58-57, and it was nail-biting time.
The two teams traded blows back and forth the rest of the way, but Alvarado's absence became more evident as Iona slowed the game down and Manhattan struggled to figure out what to do in the half-court without Alvarado to run the show. No offense to Tyler Wilson, who performed admirably in his stead, but he was much more trigger happy as the pressure mounted, which let to fewer baskets for everyone.
I should take a second to acknowledge the ridiculous performance by Isaiah WIlliams tonight, regardless of the result. He opened the game with three consecutive three-pointers, and he missed the remaining five that he took on the night, but also tallied a ridiculous seven blocks, all at key times - oh, and flying into the crowd after a loose ball was pretty spiffy, as well.
That said, who drilled the three to beat the press for Iona? Sean Armand, of course, the team's leader. Not to be outdone, Beamon went one-on-one to tie the game back up at 71-71 with about 30 seconds left. Then, just in case we had forgotten about him, Andujar swatted a last-second layup attempt to send the game to basketball at the cost of "Free 99."
It's hard to choose a most valuable player from all of these perform-... oh, who the hell am I kidding. How can you possibly choose anyone as MVP other than Emmy Andujar, who came into tonight having scored double-digit points in back-to-back games for the first time all season, and absolutely goes off for 28 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a block?
The MAAC is still likely a one-bid conference, but a game like tonight certainly doesn't hurt the chances for a second bid if these teams meet again in the tournament finale. Tonight is just more proof that the margin for error at the top of this conference is extremely small. Things are far from settled in the Metro-Atlantic, but that should make for an awfully fun tournament next weekend.