Iona looked in disarray dropping to 4-7 after its 83-58 loss at the hands of Saint Joseph’s last Saturday. Five days later, in front of the home crowd at the Hynes Athletics Center, the Gaels led wire-to-wire against Patriot League favorite Colgate in an 85-65 victory.
Iona followed up its worse performance of the season with by far its best, and with one more game before MAAC play, a corner has seemed to be turned.
“We practiced really well,” Iona head coach Tobin Anderson said. “Tuesday was our best practice of the year, and you could just tell there was a little more life to it.”
With the return of Osborn Shema spoiled on Saturday night on Long Island, the Gaels refocused, with the big man at the center of it all.
“With Oz back it’s like we’re almost in a way starting all over,“ Anderson said. “So, we have to keep getting better.”
While his stat line didn’t jump out, just five points and seven rebounds, the lone returnee from last season’s MAAC championship squad helped the Gaels in many other ways. He was the catalyst behind the shift in energy for the entire group, according to his coach.
“‘[The players] get sick of listening to me after a while,” Anderson said. “But they’ll listen to a guy who’s won here. He was mentioning what he wanted the players to do more. He’s the guy that’s most engaged. He listens the best.”
He made winning plays on both ends, draining a triple and swatting two shots. He also tipped the basketball out for rebound opportunities, and continued his role at the top of the Gaels press. His presence alone has made life so much easier for the rest of the team.
“Oh man, it’s amazing,” said star freshman Jean Aranguren, who led the way for Iona with 22 points and eight rebounds. “Oz is a very high IQ guy. He knows how to play, and he’s easy to play with. He knows his path, and he’s always correcting us. It’s great playing with him and having him back.”
Shema didn’t have to come back to New Rochelle as every last one of his teammates decided to move on in the wake of Rick Pitino’s departure from the Gaels’ program. However, Anderson was able to win Shema over.
“[Anderson is] very enthusiastic, and he loves basketball,” Shema said. “He loves winning, and I wanted to win, I like to win too, so that really did it for me.”
His loyalty to the Iona program earned Shema the key to the hearts of the Gaels’ fanbase, as the man they call “King Oz” got a massive ovation as he was introduced for his first home game since returning from injury.
As one of the most unique players in the country, Shema provides a wrinkle to the Iona attack that is impossible to prepare for on tape. He’s a seven-footer with nimble feet, great ball handling and passing, a high basketball IQ, the ability to stretch the floor and arms long enough to block any shot that his quick feet take him to.
“Oz is so good,” Anderson said. “He makes so many winning plays, like challenging shots and tipping out rebounds. He’s talking a little bit of trash out there. He’s so engaged. He made a lot of those plays tonight that we haven’t been making. You could just tell that we were a little bit tougher tonight.”
Colgate’s head coach, Matt Langel, whose team has played one of the most difficult non-conference gauntlets in the country, echoed Anderson’s sentiment about Iona’s resolve.
“Their toughness impressed me the most,” he said. “For a group of guys that hasn’t played together before this year, they were very connected. They played like the vision that Tobin has for them.”
The vision, including a balanced scoring attack and a full onslaught of full-court press, was on full display. The Gaels completely stifled the Raider offense in the first half, forcing seven turnovers and scoring 12 points off those turnovers.
Iona’s ball movement was better than it had been all season, with 20 assists on 31 field goals, and five different players in double figures.
Outside of Aranguren, four veterans also chipped in high scoring outputs. Idan Tretout, Wheza Panzo and Joel Brown scored 14, 12 and 11 points, respectively keying the victory on the offensive side.
After doubts about whether Anderson would stick with his older guys, he told his vets that he was “doubling down.”
“We’re not going to win a MAAC championship playing five freshmen,” he said.