ALBANY — They say that good things come in threes, and that is definitely the case for Iona as they took down Fairfield 83-71 in the MAAC championship game on Monday night to earn their third straight conference championship and trip to the NCAA tournament.
It took until late in the first half for the Gaels to really get going as Fairfield had the lead at times early on. Iona finished the first half on a 10-2 run that was finished off by an off-balance layup from Zach Lewis just before the buzzer sounded. They led by six at the half, 43-37.
Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson was a part of what Iona had struggled with in the first half as he finished with 17 points on 4-5 shooting from three in the first 20 minutes.
Early on in the second, it was evident that a different Iona team came out of the locker room, and they started the second half firing, extending their lead from six to 20 in the first nine minutes out of intermission. Roland Griffin and Zach Lewis, who had 17 and 13 first-half points, came out and kept it going in the second. Griffin had 12 points in the second half for a team-high 29, and Lewis added seven for a total of 20.
“Where they came from, the different moments in the season to get to where they did, it’s all about their hard work and heart and not giving up, leadership, all the great things,” Iona head coach Tim Cleuss said.
From then on, it was smooth sailing for Iona en route to their victory. Fairfield did cut their deficit to as little as six down the stretch, but that came with less than a minute to play, and it was too little, too late. Nelson was a big part of why Fairfield struggled to score as he only put up eight in the second half but finished with a total of 25. The Stags did not give him the ball that much in the final stretches, and it ended up hurting them in the long run.
For Iona, they remained consistent for the entire second half, took smart shots and drew fouls going up to the rim. The Gaels shot 27 free throws throughout the night and hit 23 of them. Griffin went a perfect 11-11 at the line.
“You just got to stay focused on the line and just believe it’s going in,” Griffin said.
Iona will now go to their third straight NCAA tournament and for the fourth time in the past six years. It serves as a true testament of the Iona program and what they have been able to accomplish over this current era.
Lewis, who transferred to Iona as a graduate student before this season after playing at Massachusetts, said, “The tradition, that was almost a main reason why I came here. Every year they (have) an opportunity to win a championship and go to the tournament, so who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”
Additionally, the Gaels had to fight through adversity at different parts of the season to get to this point. They started the season 1-4 and finished the regular season by losing three of their last four. Even in this tournament, they trailed Saint Peter’s by 10 at halftime in Sunday’s semifinals before pulling it together for the win.
“We’re fortunate to find a way to win,” Cleuss said. “We’ve talked about ‘you’ve never given up,’ we had one game all year that we kind of threw a real stinker out there. Other than that, we’ve competed in every game. We haven’t always played well, but we’ve competed, and that’s all we really ask for.”
Fairfield’s season is possibly over, and head coach Sydney Johnson would not commit to accepting an invitation to a smaller postseason tournament.
For Iona, they will now wait for their NCAA tournament assignment, which they will find out on Sunday, March 11, the day the bracket comes out.