SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Lamont “Momo” Jones, the MAAC Player of the Year, took his place on the riser, folded his arms on the table and buried his face in his arms. Asked a question, he struggled to lift his head and respond.
“Momo’s obviously been very, very sick,” said Iona coach Tim Cluess.
Obviously? When exactly did it become so obvious? When Jones scored 12 points in the first half? While he was blitzing Canisius for 21 in the second? Should it have been deduced he was feeling mighty poorly when he hit the rim on that one free throw while going 14 of 14 from the foul line?
“Honestly I don’t know what I have,” said Jones, his eyes rheumy. “Whatever it is it don’t feel good.”
The only thing obvious at the MassMutual Center on Saturday evening was that Canisius had no answers when it came to guarding Jones and his backcourt mate, Sean Armand. They penetrated the lane with impunity. They combined for 57 points and a 25-of-26 showing at the free throw line. They’re a big part of the reason the Gaels outlasted the Griffs, 89-85, and return to the MMC this afternoon for a semifinal date with Niagara.
“Obviously it’s huge for us to have both of them playing the way they’re capable of playing again together,” Cluess said. “And I think it’s going to be a battle tomorrow because the guys we’re playing have guards just like that and hopefully our guards can be a little better than theirs tomorrow.”
Canisius guard Billy Baron said earlier in the week that the Griffs could live with a loss if missed shots did them in. That isn’t what did them in. They could neither keep Jones and Armand out of the lane nor defend them when they entered. They lost the rebounding battle by nine in the decisive second half. It was David Laury’s offensive board off a Jones miss that lead to a driving bank shot by Jones and an 80-77 lead with 1:55 left.
“When Dave comes to work he’s one of the best players in the league,” Armand said of Laury’s 14-rebound effort. “He came to work and we needed him.”
“That was a huge, huge play,” Griffs coach Jim Baron said of Jones’ shot. “I got to give them credit because they did what they had to do.”
Canisius trailed by 12 with 13:27 remaining but finally forced a few turnovers that led to transition baskets that pulled them back into the game. They had drawn to within 78-77 on an inside basket by Chris Manhertz (13 points, 11 rebounds) but couldn’t complete the comeback.
Down three, Manhertz missed a contested 5-footer and Iona’s Taaj Ridley countered with an inside basket. Then Harold Washington (17 points) came up short on a drive and stepped out of bounds before retrieving the ball. Ridley hit a free throw at the other end and Canisius remained at least five points down until Billy Baron (24 points) nailed a three near the end.
The Griffs had their gripes.
“They had 40 foul shots,” Jim Baron said. “I don’t know if I played a game this year where a team had 40 foul shots.
“A couple of crucial plays that I can’t wait to see. Harold stepping out of bounds. I thought he was inbounds. I thought he was clearly inbounds. That was a huge, huge play.”
The fact remains the Griffs didn’t execute on the defensive end of the floor. They knew Armand’s capabilities. He threw down 32 on them in mid-January. And although Jones hadn’t gone off on them in the regular season he led the conference in scoring at better than 20 points a game. The two are deadly outside shooters. Allowing them to penetrate the paint is to invite double jeopardy.
“We talked about stepping in and taking charges so that they don’t run over us, but you know …,” Baron said. “That’s why I was telling our guys, we need to step in on them. That’s how you got to counter them. Because if not, then they get 40 free throws.”
“I think that’s our game plan every game is to try to just attack them to get open shots for our big guys and the guys on the perimeter and I think tonight we were successful at that,” Jones said.
Billy Baron took his spot on the riser with a faraway look in his eye. He’s one of four transfers who joined in the lineup this year and lifted the Griffs from the conference basement to 11 wins in league and great ambitions.
“The whole season we talked about going to the NCAA Tournament. So very disappointing. Extremely disappointing.”