Walker Miller led the Hawks with 22 points/Monmouth Athletics
The opportunity was there for the Monmouth Hawks to win on Tuesday night against Iona. What could have been a defining conference victory for Monmouth fell just short as the Hawks rallied to send the game into overtime but couldn't get their last-second shot to fall in the extra period and lost by a single digit, 86-85. It was quite a battle between two of the top teams in the MAAC that showcased the talent that each team brings to the court and the mutual respect both programs have for one another. There were no hard feelings after the game, no what could have been from Monmouth nor relief from Iona. Both coaches were satisfied with their team's effort afterward. King Rice and Monmouth knew they played much more to their potential than their prior game where they lost by 36 to Marist and Rick Pitino and Iona continue to be the standard of the conference.
The two coaches, Rice and Pitino, have a long history together. Pitino tried to recruit Rice as a high school senior to come to play for him. The respect that Rice has for Pitino has grown with time. "He's a Hall of Famer. We're all blessed and fortunate to have him in this league", Rice said of Pitino after the game. After praising Pitino and his own team's effort tonight, Rice defended his program and his players for the criticism they received after the subpar result against Marist this past week. "Everyone who piled on us, just because we had one bad night in 11 years, I wish I could say where to tell you where to go." The Hawks are coming off of a Covid pause and have played three games (all losses) in five days. Rice defended his team's losses by pointing out that conditioning and recovery were an issue for the players after Covid and he was following the schedule the MAAC laid out after a pause.
While Rice wasn't happy about the timeframe after his team's Covid pause, his Hawks team looked better conditioned tonight and had three players with 20+ points and took the Gaels to the brink of their first conference loss. The Hawks were down by two with just two seconds left in regulation when Seton Hall transfer Shavar Reynolds drew a foul and sank two free throws to force the game into OT. In the extra frame, Iona quickly went up by five points but Monmouth fought back and had a chance to win but Nikkei Rutty's off-balance shot as time expired couldn't get to the rim as the Gaels remained undefeated in MAAC play. Iona's loaded with talent this season and tonight it was Elijah Joiner's play with 24 points that helped push the Gaels to the win. Pitino challenged Joiner to step up his game when he felt he wasn't playing to his talent level and Joiner responded tonight with one of his best efforts of the season. He played confidently and his teammates found him the ball in clutch situations. As deep as this year's Iona team is, the way Joiner played tonight will probably be the stuff of nightmares for other MAAC coaches. Pitino knows which buttons to push with this team and if Joiner doesn't beat you, players like Tyson Jolly or Nelly Junior Joseph are more than capable of dominating a game.
Tonight really was a heavyweight fight in the MAAC and it would surprise no one if these two teams would meet in Atlantic City in the conference tournament final with an NCAA Tournament berth at stake. While Iona could probably get an at-large bid if they continue to win but lose in the conference tournament (with a little NCAA politics that Rice alluded to in the postgame press conference) tonight's game was a bit bittersweet with the rumor that Monmouth will leave the MAAC and join the Colonial Athletic Association as soon as next year. This very well may have been the swan song of Iona playing Monmouth in Long Branch. If that's the case then tonight may have been the perfect microcosm of their long rivalry. Monmouth showed grit and heart but just couldn't get over the hump. Iona was just a tad bit better. As always though when these two rivals meet it was wildly entertaining. I hope we get two more games just like this one before the season ends.