Everybody knows about the nation’s third leading scorer MoMo Jones. Most people also know about Sean Armand, the other sharp-shooting guard who is averaging 16.8 points per game. But it was the 5’9′ Iona point guard who was the difference in the second half as Iona came from behind to knock off the top-seeded Niagara Purple Eagles in the MAAC tournament semifinals, 79-73.
Tavon Sledge, a sophomore from Spring Valley, New York was the difference-maker for Iona as key play after key play led to the Gaels slowly increasing their lead en route to a victory, and berth in the conference championship game.
Tavon Sledge was the difference maker for the Gaels
With 6:59 left in the game and Iona up six points, beginning to pull away, Sledge put the final dagger in the Purple Eagles as he made two big plays on each end of the court.As Niagara’s Juan’ya Green was driving to the basket, Sledge poked the ball away and forced a steal which led to made three-pointer by Sledge 21 seconds later. At that point, Niagara fell behind by nine which ultimately was too much to handle.
“I wanted to guard him (Green) all day,” said Sledge. “I knew if we slowed him down a little bit, it would give us a little advantage to come out with the win. I just wanted to lock down and I knew if I did get a stop or something that play, it would help us a lot and it changed the game for us a lot.”
After trailing by one at the break, Sledge, along with his own version of the big 3, began to push the tempo and get in transition. MoMo Jones, the nation’s third leading scorer who was playing with the flu or some sort of sickness, scored 17 points, as the Gaels had four players score at least 13 points.
“All different guys gave us contributions today,” said head coach Tim Cluess. “Our kids played their hearts out for 40 minutes. We shared the ball, rebounded, defended, made shots, made plays.”
David Laury scored a team-high 20 points and grabbed 17 rebounds as the Gaels countered every punch threw at them the entire day.
The first half was reminiscent of a heavyweight fight. Both teams hit the same number of field goals, connected on the same number of threes, and attempted the same number of free throws. The only difference was that Niagara made one more shot from the charity stripe. The second half was much different.
“I thought we pushed the ball a little better in the second half,” said Cluess. “I thought we were getting too passive in the first half and not sharing the ball as well as we could… I thought we had way too many breakdowns defensively in the first half… I think in the second half, even when they made shots, most of the time, we had a guy in the right spot… We really concentrated on the two better players and said you know what, make the rest of the team beat us and fortunately they weren’t able to do it tonight.”
Taaj Ridley added 16 points and 6 rebounds for Iona and Sean Armand added 13 points and 6 rebounds as well. But the Gaels presence was felt on the defensive end in the second half as they held Niagara to 38.2 percent shooting and 13.3 percent from beyond the arch in the second half and also held Antoine Mason to just five points in the half after he scored 16 in the first.
“We were hungry to get stops on defense,” said Sledge. “We knew our offense was going to be what it is. We were going to score regardless.”
Jones has been battling through sickness the entire week and even was warming up with a hoodie on to try and “sweat it out.”
“No excuses. No excuses. No excuses. You live this game to play,” said Jones. “I’m not hurt, so it doesn’t make no difference. I don’t need easy, I just need possible, and anything is possible.”
Joe Mihalich and his team will now head to the NIT
For Niagara, the absence of Tahjere McCall was felt tramendously as his injury forced Green and Marvin Jordan to play 40 minutes, as well as Mason to play 39.”There are excuses, and then there are facts. And the fact is, our starting point guard didn’t play. He gives us 20 to 23 minutes of terrific perimeter defense, gives Juan’ya a chance to get off the ball and not have to do as much… We missed him. We missed him a lot.”
The Purple Eagles did have five players score in double-figures but the game was ultimately decided by a few key plays down the stretch and rebounding battle, which Iona won 45-32.
Iona, who made the NCAA Tournament last year as an at-large, will face Manhattan tonight in the championship game with an automatic berth at stake. Iona lost in the 14-seed play-in first round game last year to BYU in heartbreaking fashion as they blew a 25-point lead to fall 78-72. Sledge says if his team is fortunate enough to make it back, that they won’t let the same thing happen again.
“If we get the win tomorrow, and we do play in the tournament, we’re going to shock a lot of people,” Sledge said. “I guarantee we’re going to shock a lot of people. We’re going to come out ready to play and we’re going to be focused. We’re going to be hungry. I’ll be saying for the teams to be ready to play because we’re going to bang them.”
Feature photo courtesy of Iona athletics
Tavon Sledge photo courtesy of Pickin Splinters
Joe Mihalich photo property of Queen City Sports
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