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MAAC Championship: Iona reaches third straight NCAA Tournament

The Gaels really turned it on in the conference tournament.

NCAA Basketball: MAAC Conference Tournament Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Iona Gaels punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with an 83-71 win over the Fairfield Stags in the MAAC Championship game. This will be the third straight NCAA Tournament for Tim Cluess’s team, which played its best basketball of the season at the perfect time.

Fairfield hung around for a half, but Iona’s superior talent and offensive excellence (47.5 percent from the field) won the day. The first half was a back-and-forth affair. As he’s done for the entire tournament, Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson continued to score at a crazy pace, and his 10 points led Fairfield to a 28-24 lead with 7:12 left in the first half. But that would be the high water mark for Fairfield, which could not match Iona’s ball movement and the scoring acumen of Iona junior Roland Griffin. Iona roared back to take the lead, but the Stags were only down six at halftime.

However, a bruising start to the second half saw Iona build the lead up to 64-44, which just about ended it. Nelson was cold to start the second half and Iona took advantage with a flurry of baskets. The Stags were able to draw within six points in crunch time, but the Gaels stabilized things and closed it out. Roland Griffin led the team with 29 points, eight boards and four blocks in Iona’s most important game of the season. Nelson, playing in what could be his final game, scored 25, but it was not enough.

If you predicted that Iona would make the NCAA Tournament in September, you wouldn’t exactly be original. The Gaels were the obvious preseason favorites, but the regular season was a struggle for them. Iona was only the No. 4 seed heading into the conference tournament, but the top three seeds all bowed out in their first games, paving the way for Iona to reach the dance without facing a team that went over .500 in conference play.

But tonight at the Times Union Center in Albany, just as it had been for the last two years, the Gaels would not be denied. Iona has won nine straight games in the MAAC Tournament without ever being the top seed.