Defending Iona is like trying to excel in the game of Whack-a-Mole. You shift here, they shoot there. You anticipate inside, they go outside.
If the Gaels are flowing and making their shots, as they were Sunday afternoon in the Koessler Athletic Center, what you end up is dog tired with no prize to show for your efforts.
The Gaels’ offense ran at peak efficiency during the second half of a 101-91 victory over Canisius.
The scoring came from here, there and everywhere in a 58-point show of force that left Iona (15-8, 12-2) alone atop the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and at least two games in front of the field.
Five Gaels hit double figures, led by a career-high 32 from sophomore guard A.J. English, who went 4 of 6 from behind the arc.
Bench points favored Iona by a resounding 31-3 with 23 of those coming from 6-foot-9 junior David Laury, a former starter whose relegation to a reserve role underscores the team’s strength.
The second half was the game. Iona trailed by 50-43 at the break, made that up in a jiffy and continued to roll. Over the final 20 minutes the Gaels shot 51.7 percent from the field and 56.3 percent from three-point range.
The Griffs just couldn’t keep pace, especially not with Iona springing double-teams to limit Billy Baron’s looks from long range. He scored 24 points but endured constant harassment for a second straight game while shouldering another 40-minute workload.
In the eyes of Griffs coach Jim Baron, the game-changing moment came with 12:56 remaining.
Canisius guard Zach Lewis was going in for a breakaway layup that would have put Canisius up five. He slowed en route to the basket and twice looked over his shoulder as if to invite contact. He got it. Iona’s Isaiah Williams took him down hard, drawing a Flagrant I foul that gave Canisius two shots and the ball.
“It just seemed like when Zach went down – and I’m looking forward to seeing that because I thought he was hog-tied … I mean the kid could have been killed – and from there it just seemed like the whole tide just changed from that point on,” Baron said.
Billy Baron made both free throws in place of Lewis but a turnover killed the ensuing possession and Iona unleashed an 8-0 run keyed by a pair of Williams threes. While the foul on Lewis was hard there are a couple of ways to look at the sequence. Had he gone straight in for the easy layup the Griffs would have led by five and Lewis would have proceeded unshaken. Or if Canisius had converted on the gift possession they would have led by seven with another sellout crowd backing them down the stretch.
Instead, Iona broke away from a 71-71 tie, building an 87-77 advantage during a blitz in which five players scored. And with that it was evident that the Griffs, who came into the weekend tied for first, were bound for a tie for second (or third, actually, if one applies Manhattan’s tie-breaker edge). They’re 16-9 overall, 10-4 in conference.
Iona hit triple figures despite receiving just 10 points from leading scorer Sean Armand, who was averaging 18.6. Armand instead became a facilitator, dishing out nine assists and invigorating an offense that dizzied Canisius with its ball movement.
“What eased my mind today and what I was really proud of Sean about, he had nine assists,” said Iona coach Tim Cluess. “We’ve been really preaching to Sean ‘the way teams are playing you, you really have to make the extra pass. It may take a few games before other teams realize we have a lot of guys that can score the ball if that happens and he’ll end up getting his open looks back.”
Canisius played with a bench depleted by the broken nose Chris Manhertz suffered in Friday’s loss to Manhattan. He did not dress. Freshman Phil Valenti filled the vacancy and played beyond his years, compiling 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes. But his presence in the starting five deprived the Griffs of an energy player and scorer off the bench on a day when they could have used another.
The Griffs went just 2 of 9 from behind the arc after halftime and three of those attempts were by center Jordan Heath.
“Baron and Lewis, we know they’re great shooters, especially Baron,” Laury said. “Coach told us, don’t give them any threes. If you give anybody a three at this time it’s going to be Heath and we wanted to make sure we hedged out the right way and got out aggressively.”
Chris Perez (24 points) kept the Griffs within shouting distance working the inside, but trading twos for threes wasn’t the math they needed.
“They shot the ball really well,” Billy Baron said. “It wasn’t just one guy who contributed from the outside for them. That was the issue there. That’s what they do.”