SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Three all-conference guards and one who warranted consideration took the floor for Sunday’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference semifinal between Niagara and Iona. The quartet included the league’s Player of the Year, Iona’s Lamont “Momo” Jones, and the player who surely finished second in the voting, Niagara sophomore Juan’ya Green.
But for all the backcourt excellence gathered in one space it wasn’t the guards who spoke with authority at the MassMutual Center. The voice that resonated belonged to Iona forward David Laury, a junior college transfer who will be terrorizing the MAAC for two more seasons to come.
A 6-foot-8 sophomore who became eligible after the first semester, Laury was the determining factor in the rubber match with the Purple Eagles. He scored 20 points. He muscled his way to 17 rebounds. His provided the separation in a 79-73 victory that knocked the top-seeded Purple Eagles out of the MAAC Tournament and into the NIT.
“What didn’t he do?” lamented Niagara coach Joe Mihalich.
Iona lacked Laury in its Nov. 28 meeting with the Purple Eagles but his influence and ability were apparent in the Jan. 31 rematch. Although Niagara won that one at home in overtime, Laury went for 24 points and 16 boards and served notice that Niagara had better have answers beyond guarding Jones and Sean Armand if they met again in the postseason.
The Purple Eagles had none.
With Laury and 6-7 Taaj Ridley (16 points) patrolling the paint, Iona swallowed rebounds in gulps and won the glass, 45-32. The two big men also combined for three blocks, which may have dissuaded Niagara from attacking the lane on the offensive end. The Purple Eagles (19-13) put up 33 of their 69 field-goal attempts from behind the arc and cashed a scant seven. They took that many threes only once before this season – in the OT win over the Gaels (19-13).
“It’s tough to play against a team when they have two good big guys who can stretch the floor,” said Niagara freshman forward T.J. Cline. “And Laury can drive too. And they really box out and they can get rebounds. I didn’t do a great job of staying in front of them and making it tough to crash the offensive boards. They’re great players, though. It’s hard.”
“These guys have been ready to play and it helped me and Sean out tremendously,” said Jones (17 points) of Iona’s big men. “It’s a big difference when it’s not just me and Sean, when you have Dave and you have Taaj coming through. Because now you can’t guard us how you usually guard us. You can’t nitpick on one thing. So now it opens the floor for a lot of different things.”
Their disadvantage on the interior hardly surprised the Purple Eagles. They knew they lacked the horses to offset Iona’s inside presence. Their hope was to shoot well enough to compensate for where they were wanting, but their all-conference guards had a tough afternoon. Antoine Mason scored 21 points but was 6 of 18 from the field and just 1 of 8 in the second half. Green, held to 12 points in the November loss at Iona, managed just 11, going 5 of 17 from the floor and missing all seven of his treys. The Gaels credited guard Tavon Sledge with making life miserable for Green.
“We went back to what we did the first matchup and we won that game,” Jones said. “We shut him out and Tavon did a great job. We just helped him out a little bit here and there in terms of filling in the gaps. When you came down to it, Tavon did a tremendous job. Today Tavon had that motor in his tank that he had all year.”
“I just couldn’t find my rhythm today,” Green said. “Nothing was falling. I made a couple bad plays, passes. I tried to get my head together, my teammates also, but nothing was clicking today.”
Green played carrying an extra burden. He was forced basically full-time to the point when freshman Tahjere McCall suffered an injury early in the quarterfinal win over Siena.
“There are excuses and there are facts,” said Mihalich. “And the fact is our starting point guard didn’t play. He gives us 20, 23 minutes of terrific perimeter defense. He gives Juan’ya a chance to get off the ball and not do as much and the team that we put out on the floor wasn’t as good as the team that scored 79 points today. But there’s excuses and there are facts and we missed him. We missed him a lot.”
Down nine with 6:30 remaining, Niagara crept within 70-67 with 2:54 left when Green scored at the end of a rarity – a multiple-shot Niagara possession. Iona went back up five on – fittingly – two Laury free throws with 2:28 remaining and Niagara never got closer.
“I kind of saw an opportunity because of the game I had last time against them,” Laury said. “But I wouldn’t say it was a huge difference. I feel I should be aggressive and try to take over every game.”
And remember. He’s only a sophomore.
Niagara now awaits its postseason assignment.
It’ll learn its NIT opponent and the site on Sunday night, in the hours following the announcement of the NCAA Tournament field.