When two of the top mid-major teams in the country get together, you certainly don't expect one to walk away with a blowout win. You wouldn't choose that game as the highlight of the weekend if you did.
But when the Iona Gaels traveled into Valparaiso on Sunday afternoon to face the Crusaders, they had little answer to the difficult defense thrown at them. The result was an 83-58 win for Valparaiso that should have the rest of the country on high alert for the Crusaders, not just now, but well into March.
As Tim Cluess said in his postgame talk, the Gaels just tried to do too much by themselves instead of sharing the ball. You could see it from the start as the best player on Iona, A.J. English tried to kickstart the offense on his own early. But everywhere he looked there was an extra Valparaiso defender, usually either Alec Peters or Vashil Fernandez to slow him down.
And while he forced Keith Carter, and then Max Joseph into foul trouble early, he couldn't find a way to put points on the board as Valparaiso sprinted out to an 18-2 lead and rarely looked back after that point. English would finish with 12 points to lead the Gaels, but he was just 2-for-7 from the floor and missed both of his 3-point attempts. It was an atypical down day for English who last season averaged more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
It was an impressive display of the team game for the Crusaders who not only had the help on defense but shared the ball well around the perimeter to counteract the Iona zone. They finished the first half shooting 50 percent from 3-point range (7-for-14), and with a 17-point lead, and it took until the final minute of the half before Peters had even attempted a shot. He would score the final five points of the half, and finish with 12 for the game along with seven rebounds.
The offense just seemed to operate on cruise control with Tevonn Walker scoring 17, and Shane Hammink added 16 points off the bench as the impact 6th man of the day, nailing two 3-pointers and pulling in seven boards. The Crusaders would assist on 15 of their 23 baskets and just confounded the Gaels.
Yet it all started on that defensive end. The execution there allowed the team to relax on offense as the lead grew. Valparaiso didn't need to push it hard after the first eight minutes. They had all of the control over Iona. Fernandez would finish the game with seven blocks, and many more shots that had to be altered to avoid his fearsome swat.
About the only thing that didn't go well for the Crusaders was on the injury front. David Skara had to leave the game in the second half with a turned ankle, though it didn't seem serious. While the schedule isn't kind over the next week, the team showed today that they have plenty of weapons to use to continue this 2-0 start to the year.
Iona will need to regroup before facing Oregon State on the road Tuesday night. The Beavers should have one of the better defenses in the country again this season, and it will certainly be another tough test for the Gaels. Valparaiso will next play Rhode Island at 10 a.m., Tuesday, as part of the 24-hour hoops marathon. The Rams will be without E.C. Matthews who was lost for the year with a knee injury, but remain a difficult opponent.