ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New faces. Same old Iona.
Roland Griffin and Zach Lewis, transfers playing their first seasons with the Gaels, combined to score 49 points and Iona beat Fairfield 83-71 on Monday night to capture the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament title for the third straight time and earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It was the fourth MAAC title for coach Tim Cluess and every bit as sweet as the others, if not moreso, because of all the doubters that surfaced after the Gaels started the season 1-4 after being picked to win the conference.
"I love these guys because they found a way," Cluess said. "They know that people doubted. They know that people gave up on them. I think it's even more special because they never gave up on themselves. They're just a tough, gritty group."
— Iona Men's Hoops (@IonaGaelsMBB) March 6, 2018
Iona (20-13), the fourth seed, extended its league record to 11 tournament titles. Fairfield (17-16), the sixth seed, had won seven straight games and was seeking its fourth title. But the Stags were no match inside for the Gaels, who outscored them 44-22 in the paint instead of relying so much on the long ball. Iona entered the game averaging nearly 10 made 3s per game and attempted just 13.
"We were mindful of their shooting and they found another way to hurt you," Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said.
Griffin had a career-high 29 points, four blocks, and made all 11 free throws he attempted.
"The whole year coach said just make plays," said Griffin, who played at Illinois State and Midland College in Texas before transferring to Iona for his final two years of eligibility."
Lewis, a graduate transfer from Canisius, was named tournament MVP after scoring 20 points and nabbing a game-high four steals.
"This is amazing," Lewis said at the podium afterward, the shiny championship trophy at his side. "All I want to do is win. That's why I came here."
Iona's path to its sixth straight MAAC championship game was made easier when the top three top seeds — Rider, Canisius, and Niagara — were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
It was the first time since 2002 that the top three failed to make the semifinals, and the Gaels took advantage. They edged Saint Peter's 65-62 in the semifinals, never gaining the lead until three minutes remained. Fairfield beat Quinnipiac 74-64 in the other semifinal behind 21 points and 11 rebounds from Ferron Flavors Jr. and 19 points from Tyler Nelson.
Although Nelson's final MAAC game didn't turn out the way he envisioned, he didn't disappoint, hitting 6 of 8 from behind the arc and scoring 25 points to help keep the Stags in the hunt for the championship.
When it was over, Nelson and Johnson embraced along the sideline for several seconds.
This is what it's all about.
As he checks out, Fairfield's all-time leading scorer Tyler Nelson shared an emotional moment with his head coach Sydney Johnson. pic.twitter.com/O6nCOuUv4P
— ESPN (@espn) March 6, 2018
"Obviously, that moment was a tough moment, but it was also something I'll remember the rest of my life," Nelson said. "I'm just thankful to him."
Iona and Fairfield split during the regular season, each winning at home, but the Stags struggled a lot in this one, especially inside against a team that had finished the regular season on the skids, losing three of its final four games before coming alive in the tournament.
The Stags trailed 43-37 at the break and Iona stormed out in the second half and built the lead to double digits with a 7-1 flurry, a 3 from the left corner by Rickey McGill boosting the margin to 50-38 at 17:04.
After Flavors briefly stopped the surge with a 3, Griffin scored four points and McGill hit an open 3 from the top of the key to make it 57-41 and the Stags were reeling. A fallaway 3-pointer by Deyshonee Much gave the Gaels a commanding 64-44 lead midway through the second half.
Nelson hit his sixth 3 of the game with 5:25 to go to cut the lead to 11 and give Fairfield a glimmer of hope, and a layup by Jonathan Kasibabu completed a 10-4 run that narrowed the gap to 75-69 with a minute left. The Gaels sank four straight free throws in the final seconds to secure the win.
DOWNTOWN FIRST-HALF FLURRY
Fairfield committed eight turnovers in the first seven minutes but stayed with the Gaels in the first half by hitting from long range. Fairfield finished 7 of 12 from behind the arc in the period but hit only 4 of 17 in the second.
FREE THROW WOES
Fairfield missed only one of 22 foul shots in the semifinals, hitting all 19 in the second half. Against Iona, they finished 10 of 20.
Fairfield: The Stags lose Nelson, who hit 104 3-pointers on the season. But returning is Flavors, and the junior made 95 from behind the arc this year.
Iona: The Gaels have struck out in the NCAA Tournament in 12 appearances, but if Griffin and Lewis continue to excel, Iona will pose a tough matchup in the first round.
Fairfield: The Stags await an invite to a postseason tournament.
Iona: The Gaels await their seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Follow John Kekis on Twitter @Greek1947