Virtually everything in a mid-major tournament like the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship is small. The schools, the players, the venue, and the attendance in said venue all lack the volume—in terms of size and in terms of sound—of the major conferences; they're also shorter and less pompous, the concessions are cheaper and the players are on balance closer to normal human size. The stakes, though, are the same. And so even in a league consisting mostly of small Empire State schools like the MAAC, which played its hard-fought final in front of what felt like a few hundred people in Springfield, Massachusetts earlier this week, there's nothing exactly small and a lot that feels profoundly "major" about what's going on.
In no other conference can you find a player quite like Iona’s Lamont “Momo” Jones. Or, that's not quite right: you could have found Jones in the Pac-10, at the University of Arizona, several years ago, but the Harlem native made a homesick transfer back to the New York City area, and was, this year, the nation’s second leading scorer as a senior. The media guide stretches his height to six feet even, and he stretches the rest—Jones is a loquacious and personable player with the instincts of a comedian; he laughs while serving reporters quotes, knowing full well that the humor in the quip won’t be lost when pen hits the page.
After Iona dispatched Manhattan College, Jones was asked if he knew about any other schools that he and his Iona mates could face in the NCAA tournament. “Other schools? I don’t know about [any] other schools,” he said to a converted banquet space-turned press room full of reporters. “What? Coach, I don’t know what they’re talking about." He grinned at head coach Tim Cluess, who seems familiar with, if not at all unamused-by, the Momo Jones Show.
It's the second time the Gaels have made the NCAA Tournament during Jones' time with the team, but their first MAAC Championship. The team’s 2012 road to the tournament ran through an at-large berth—after a MAAC semifinal loss as the tournament’s top seed—included one brilliant half of the team's signature breakneck ball, and then ended with a second-half meltdown in a “First Four” matchup against BYU.
“I said from the beginning of the season that we were going to go to the tournament the right way,” junior guard Sean Armand said, after being nudged to answer the question with a wink and a laugh from Cluess. “Don’t get me wrong: we worked hard, played a tough schedule last year, and got in because of our hard work, but I kept telling the guys that I wanted to get in this year because we had earned it. Hard work pays off. This shows that.”
And so for the Gaels the MAAC Tournament was to some extent a matter of score-settling. The Gaels exacted revenge against Canisius, a team that beat them by three points just over a month earlier, in the quarterfinals. They topped top-seeded Niagara, 79-73, on Sunday, avenging an earlier gut-punch of a three-overtime loss to the Purple Eagles. (You have maybe noticed that a certain color-plus-animal/mythical creature-equals nickname motif abounds in the MAAC.) The game that won the Gaels their bid was itself a bit of revenge, as the Manhattan (no modifier) Jaspers, had beaten the Gaels in a 74-73 double overtime heartbreaker on the day after Valentine’s Day. Yet, in 82 all-time meetings between schools separated by just nine miles on the map, this was their first meeting in the MAAC title game.
On Monday night, junior swingman Tre Bowman looked for some redemption of his own. Just one day earlier, he played sparingly in the semifinals against Niagara and wasn’t exactly thrilled about being seemingly stapled to the pine after some mental lapses on defense. In the final, Bowman exploded for a game-high 20 points in 32 minutes off the bench in the team’s 60-57 win.
“He’s a good offensive player, but could use a little bit of confidence,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said in the postgame presser. “Once he got his energy going on both sides of the ball, it was contagious. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here right now.” Here being Springfield, in front of a modest crowd and far from the school's New Rochelle, New York campus, but also here being where they'd wanted to be all season: ticket punched and tournament-bound, in pursuit of a destiny they'd play at least some role in shaping.
For all the smiles and tears of joy in their championship afterglow on Monday night, it was easy to recall how the basketball season started for the Gaels. In July, recruit Mike Haynes was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight in front of his Chicago home, mere weeks before the incoming junior college transfer was to report to New Rochelle. The team dedicated its season to a player with whom they had yet to share the same floor in a competitive game. All season long, the team wore a patch bearing Haynes' initials.
“Every timeout, every halftime I would tell the guys, ‘Five more seconds, look at the patch on your shoulder. This is for Mike,” Armand said. “This season, this tournament was for him. I’m glad that we made it to the tournament while honoring him.” Cluess spoke with similar emotion. Here was some heavy and powerful stuff amid the giddiness and light of college kids enjoying the achievement of a modest but difficult dream.
When we fill out our brackets later in the month, Iona will be just a team whose name is on a line. And that's fine, of course, because that's what they are and will be—an obscure-ish school's team, the double-digit seed playing a favored opponent. The Gaels are good, and very much the sort team that can steal an upset or two in the tournament—they shoot well and defend enthusiastically, and Jones is a good enough player to change the direction of a game all by himself. But during the MAAC Tournament, that sort of prognostication felt far from the proceedings. This is true, undoubtedly, in each of the small tournaments that produce the NCAA's seemingly sacrificial teams. Every one has a story, a reason why and how they made it, and why and how that journey matters to them. Some just tell it more quietly. Iona tells theirs on the floor, and with some initials on a patch.