Fairfield Shocks Iona and Gaels are Likely Headed to NIT | Zagsblog
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Saturday / March 2.
  • Fairfield Shocks Iona and Gaels are Likely Headed to NIT

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    SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Iona coach Tim Cluess says he isn’t sure whether he will gather his team a week from now to watch Selection Sunday on television.

    Understandably, he doesn’t want his guys to experience two major letdowns in the span of eight days.

    “You have to be a little bit realistic,” Cluess said after his top-seeded Gaels were sent packing by No. 4 Fairfield, 85-75, in the MAAC Championship semifinals at the MassMutual Center.

    “NIT [or] NCAA, we have to look at that as it’s a national tournament. We’re going to look at it as an honor. We would love to play in the NCAA, but if we don’t get that we’re thrilled to be going to the NIT because it’s still a reward for what these guys have done this year.”

    History is not on Iona’s side in terms of the NCAAs. Only one MAAC team — Manhattan in 1995 — has received an at-large bid after failing to win the conference tournament.

    As if to drive that point home, the Fairfield student section chanted, “NIT, NIT” in the waning moments of the game.

    Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com confirmed that thinking by saying “No,” when asked if he has Iona (25-7) in his NCAA bracket.

    Thanks to Rakim Sanders’s career-high 26 points and season-highs from both Colin Nickerson (14 points) and Keith Matthews (14), Fairfield (19-13) will play Loyola in Monday’s championship game, with the winner capturing the automatic bid to the Big Dance. Jimmy Patsos’s Loyola club downed Siena, 70-60, in the second semifinal.

    The first game turned when Fairfield, trailing 60-54, rattled off a 16-1 second-half run fueled by nine points from Sanders, to go ahead for good, 70-61.

    “Their role players completely out-played our role players,” Cluess said. “And that was the difference to me in the game…Fairfield’s played great, well above what they’ve done all year long.”

    Despite boasting the league’s best regular-season record, its Postseason Player of the Year in point guard Scott Machado and  its Preseason Player of the Year in Mike Glover, the Gaels failed to deliver the goods for a second straight year and garner the league’s automatic bid.

    A year ago, Iona was beaten by St. Peter’s in the MAAC final.

    “Unfortunately, this wasn’t what I wanted for myself and the rest of the seniors on the basketball team,” Glover said after missing 7 of 10 foul shots in the final 7:52 and finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds. “This right now is pretty much hard to take in right now.”

    “This is upsetting,” said a downtrodden Machado, who finished with 24 points and seven assists but managed just eight points and two assists in the second half, when Fairfield outscored Iona, 45-33.

    Iona has an RPI of 38 according to RealTimeRPI.com, and hopes that will persuade the Selection Committe. The Gaels went 1-1 against the RPI Top 50 — beating Nevada and losing to Purdue — and 6-3 against the Top 100.

    “If you’re going to pick eight or nine teams out of the Big East, that’s nonsense,” Cluess said, sounding defiant. “Those teams aren’t as good as we are.”

    He added: “Maybe this an argument for expanding the tournament.”

    Before the tournament began, both Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos and Manhattan coach Steve Masiello argued for Iona getting an at-large bid should they fail to win the tournament.

    That now remains possible, but unlikely. And even Cluess seemed to be preparing for an NIT bid.

    “I’m hoping that they [the NCAA Selection Committee] looks at us and reward us and that’s I think what they should do and hopefully do do,” Cluess said.

    “You gotta believe and trust in them so I’m hoping that they do the right thing.”

    Photo: Daily News

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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