Iona Celebrates Selection Sunday; Will Face UNC Friday
This last week has been crucial to the Iona Gaels, as they won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship for the fourth straight year, which confirmed their entry into the NCAA tournament. The entry into this tournament was celebrated at a Selection Sunday viewing party at the Hynes Athletics Center. The viewing party featured school administrators, athletic directors, and head coach Tim Cluess, who gave an inspiring speech, detailing their incredible season and the efforts of his team. The team and coaching staff were joined by a large turnout of Iona fans. Together they watched Iona get announced as the #16 seed. Iona will go on to face the #1 seed in the Midwest region, North Carolina, on Friday.
After a dismal start to the season which put their tournament chances in jeopardy, Iona was able to get back on track, and did so at the right time. As of February 8, Iona was 7-15, and in seventh place in the conference. However, since that day, they are currently on a 10- game winning streak, and now have the chance to play a dominant North Carolina team, arguably one of the best in the country.
The Gaels were led by their scorers, including Rickey McGill, who is in his senior year with Iona. “It’s been a long year. We’ve been through so much with the ups and downs, through the wins and losses. Now it’s just time to focus even more and try and get a win,” said McGill. In all four years that McGill was on the team, the Gaels won the MAAC championship. Despite the rough start to the season, McGill did not lose focus, and said, “I just told my guys, they gotta come out and keep getting better everyday in practice, keep getting better as individuals, and that’s what we did. Now we’re here.”
While McGill hasn’t been a stranger to the NCAA tournament, there are some players who are new to both Iona and the NCAA tournament. Ben Perez is a junior who transferred to Iona at the start of the season, and was confident that he made the right decision, saying, “I knew from the beginning that we had the talent to do it. Even when we went on that rocky streak, started off 2-9, I knew that we still had the ability to do that. It was the main reason I came to Iona because I know that they have the ability to compete in the tournament every year, so I’m really glad that it worked out.”
This season also taught some valuable lessons to the team that can be applied to their future. “Basically, just always keep working. You’re never really out of it. No matter how the season goes, it can always come down to those last three games in March at the (MAAC) tournament…you never know what can happen,” Perez said.
The Gaels will now head to Columbus, OH, for Friday’s game against North Carolina. Head coach Tim Cluess reflected on this season’s journey and how it paid off in the end, saying, “Obviously we knew it was a long stretch, but honestly you sit there and you dream of things happening. With every game, with every little bit of energy and effort they put in, you start believing, ‘Ok maybe we can go on a run. You know what, we have a chance in the tournament.’ Not thinking you’re gonna win all the way out, like we did to get the number 1 seed. I think we needed the number 1 seed with the lack of bodies that we had. So the fact that we’re able to make that push, and then get that one day off, so we’d only have to play two days in a row, rather than three or four. I think that was huge.”
Cluess will now prepare his game plan for North Carolina while appreciating this moment his team is experiencing. “You gotta focus on both [offense and defense and you just have to try to limit your mistakes and play as clean a game as possible. We know what we’re going up against and all that, but it’s a great opportunity. You’re going against the best team in the country. It’s a lot of fun.”
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