ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Coach Tim Cluess has set the bar pretty high at Iona. It’s what he’s used to doing.
Asante Gist had 22 points, Tajuan Agee added 18 and top-seeded Iona defeated Monmouth 81-60 on Monday night to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title for the fourth straight time.
Iona (17-15) is the first men’s team to win four straight league titles.
“It means a lot to me because I wanted to do something special for Iona because they believed in me and gave me a chance,” Cluess said. “I always look to bars to try to beat.”
The Gaels were the top seed for the 10th time and have won four of their 12 conference titles as the No. 1 seed. The top seed had not won the tournament since Siena in 2010, the longest drought of any conference in the country.
E.J. Crawford had 15 points, Ben Perez scored 14, and Rickey McGill added 10 for Iona. McGill, the only player to be on four conference champions in league history, was named tournament MVP
Iona started the season 2-9, losing seven straight before beating Monmouth at home. The Gaels will enter the NCAA Tournament riding a 10-game winning streak.
“It just shows how much time we put in the gym as a team, how we never quit, never gave up, and here we are now,” McGill said.
Monmouth (14-21), the sixth seed, was seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006 and first under coach King Rice, who took over in 2011. It was a rematch of the 2016 title game, which Iona won 79-76, and the result left a bad taste.
“Today we lost to a better team, which is hard for me to say because I don’t really believe it,” said Diago Quinn, who led the Hawks with 13 points, the only player in double figures. “But we lost to a better team.”
Trailing by six at the half, the Hawks pulled within 41-38 on Nick Rutherford’s 3-pointer with 17:20 left, but the Gaels responded with a 20-2 spurt keyed by the long ball to take control. The Hawks self-destructed, missing five straight shots and committing one turnover during the Iona run.
Iona finished 12 of 29 from behind the arc, allowed only 5 of 24 3-pointers, and tied Monmouth with 34 rebounds.
Gist, who was 5 of 9 from long range, hit a trio of 3-pointers and Crawford converted a three-point play and hit a spinning layup off the glass before adding a pair of free throws to give Iona a 60-40 lead with 12:41 left.
“It’s a funny thing getting to the championship game because at some point somebody is going to lose,” Rice said. “Iona is a tough out. We’ve tried everything. You gotta give coach Cluess all the credit. He really gets his kids to play together. That’s why they’re the best program in the MAAC.”
Leading scorer Ray Salnave hit his only basket of the game for Monmouth midway through the second half. By then, the Hawks were trailing by 22. Deion Hammond had eight points and missed all seven 3-pointers he attempted.
Iona topped Siena in the semifinals Sunday and the Hawks defeated No. 2 Canisius to reach the title game.
Monmouth jumped to a 6-2 lead at the outset. Then Agee’s three-point play started a 15-0 Iona run, and Rickey McGill’s pull-up 3-pointer ended it and gave Iona a 17-6 lead less than five minutes in.
After Gist hit a 3 at the shot-clock buzzer to keep the Gaels in front by double digits, the Hawks methodically pecked away at the lead. Hammond hit a shot off the glass after a miss, followed by a fast-break layup, and Marcus McClary’s layup closed the gap to 33-30 in the final minute of the half.
Agee’s low-arcing 3 from the left wing gave Iona a 36-30 lead at the break. The Gaels held a 12-2 edge in points scored off turnovers.
The teams split the season series. Salnave’s basket with 1.1 seconds left gave the Hawks an 83-81 home win in late January as Iona’s Crawford was held to just seven points, only the second time he didn’t score in double figures this season. He had 20 points in a 103-84 win over the Hawks at home in the conference opener on Jan 3.
Monmouth started the season with 12 straight losses before Rice figured a way to turn things around. The Hawks had won four straight entering Monday night’s game and a victory would have put Rice’s record at 132-132.
Both teams were making an average of more than 15 free throws a game. In the first half, Monmouth was 1 of 2 and Iona hit its only one. The Gaels hit 19 of 23 in the second while the Hawks finished 5 of 12 overall.
Monmouth’s Quinn set a school record by playing in his 135th game.
NEVER GETS OLD
Iona has made the title game six straight times under Cluess, who was named MAAC coach of the year for the second time.
HE SAID IT
“They could have quit any time and they didn’t,” Cluess said about his Gaels and their tough start to the season.
Monmouth: The Hawks showed some late-season spunk after their awful start to the season, which bodes well for next year.
Iona: The Gaels might lament that this was the last conference tournament in Albany for a while. They’re 20-2 in the Times Union Center over the past seven years. The MAAC is moving the tournament site to Atlantic City for the next three years.
NCAA Tournament bracket announcement on March 17.
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