SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – When a team beats a neighborhood rival for a championship, you might expect a lot of bragging rights-type of talk from the winning team. You might expect them to not have high words for the opponent in between basking in the glow of the championship. That all gets magnified by it being a championship game, with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, as well as a rematch of the title game from a year earlier.
And yet there was nothing but respect for Iona coming from Manhattan, located less than ten miles away, after the Jaspers’ 71-68 win in the MAAC Championship game. It speaks to the character of the young men in the program and why they went from going 6-25 and a tie for the bottom of the MAAC to being champions in three years.
“Iona is a great team,” said senior George Beamon, who was the tournament MVP. “They always come ready to play. They give us a great challenge.”
Steve Masiello has brought this program back to prominence in short order. He’s a hometown kid who naturally is ecstatic right now. He gives all the credit to the young men, but he’s architected this program’s rise back to the top with decisions he made from a personnel standpoint and getting them to believe in what he was doing. This title was won with a group of kids no one would have imagined it happening with, and he didn’t have to look far for inspiration, both every day and in particular, on Monday night.
“They’re a class act. They’re the reason we’re here,” Masiello said of Iona. “We’ve modeled our program after everything Tim (Cluess, Iona’s head coach) has done at the mid-major level. They’ve motivated us, they’ve driven us, they’ve recruited the best players, they’ve gotten the best players, and they pushed us to this point.”
And when he said that Iona should be in the NCAA Tournament, every player sitting at the podium with him nodded in agreement.
When Masiello took over, the program had basically fallen from grace. Barry Rohrssen, who Masiello tipped his hat to, had trouble winning games but brought in high-character kids and boosted the program’s APR, with all of the four-year players under him graduating. Masiello said he was told not to keep Michael Alvarado, and had the likes of George Beamon, who had no other scholarship offers, and Rhamel Brown, who basically no one knew about.
What did those three seniors do? Alvarado was the tough floor leader who tried to play with a broken nose on Monday night. Beamon, a lanky wing, is the program’s fourth all-time leading scorer and bounced back from an injury-shortened season a year ago to close out his career on a great note. He also leads them in rebounding. Rhamel Brown is the school’s all-time leading shot-blocker and has been a steady inside presence.
A year ago, the Jaspers made a surprise run to the title game as the No. 6 seed. They established an identity as a defensive team given a lack of scoring ability, and rode that all the way to playing for an NCAA bid before dropping a tough one to Iona. That fueled them even more, and the identity they forged was part of who they were this season – or at least, it was once they played the Gaels again. They lost to the Gaels in New Rochelle on January 31, and that was when a decision was made about how they would play.
“Early in the year, we tried to be a very good offensive team and a very good defensive team,” Masiello reflected. “When we lost to Iona the first time on January 31, what we said was, let’s just become a great defensive team. Forget being a good offensive team. When we did that, our offense actually got better. We went from 43 percent to 47 percent as a team. All we worry about is defense.”
To that end, the Jaspers are holding opponents to 41 percent shooting, force nearly 16 turnovers a game and out-rebound opponents by better than one per game. Brown may lead the way there, but he’s hardly alone. On Monday, they were up against a terrific offensive team and neutralized them enough to win. Iona shot 44 percent from the field, but included in that was a 6-21 showing from long range.
Masiello never imagined this team would get to the title game last year as they did. This season, that kind of result was expected, and they looked capable of it early on when they won at La Salle in the season opener. Only once all season have they lost consecutive games. This is a high-character team and a resilient one as well.
A year ago, Manhattan lost a three-point game to their neighbors. Getting another opportunity so quickly, while expected, was far from guaranteed. On Monday night, all the work they put in paid off with a championship win over the program they have used as a model for success. True to their character, there was happiness because of all they went through, but also respect for how they got there.