A.J. English rises to occasion for Iona against Manhattan

A.J. English guarded by Rashawn Stores in a game last season. Courtesy Photo / ICGaels.com

RIVERDALE, N.Y. — As the seconds ticked off the clock, A.J. English had his sights set on two things. Neither was the rim.

Iona was tied at 65 with rival Manhattan Friday night, and 45 seconds left became 40 and then 35. The fluorescent lights lining Draddy Gym’s ceiling bounced off the hardwood floor as resounding chants of “Defense!” emanated from the capacity crowd of 2,520.

English had not scored in more than 11 minutes. He scanned the floor for Schadrac Casimir, a freshman guard who passed his initiation into the rivalry with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Casimir wasn’t free. Manhattan switches every pick late in games, and the 6-foot-9 David Laury screened for English to create a mismatch. English couldn’t find an angle to feed Laury in the post against Manhattan point guard Rashawn Stores.

English had been in other high-leverage situations this year.

With just a few ticks left, he calmly sank two free throws to beat Niagara, 80-79, on Jan. 16. Two weeks later, he had the presence of mind to hit Kelvin Amayo for an overtime-forcing layup in a win over Saint Peter’s rather than shoot a triple-teamed 3-pointer.

But this was different.

This was a chance to stake Iona’s maroon and gold flag at center court and declare a new territory 9.3 miles away from home in New Rochelle. This was at Manhattan, the rival that upset Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship.

“Coach [Tim Cluess] just looked at me and told me to go,” said English, who ranks 17th nationally with 19.7 points per game.

So with the 6-foot-10 Ashton Pankey guarding him off the switch and 18 NBA scouts taking notes, the 6-foot-4 English let one fly from well beyond the 3-point line with 30 seconds left. He dropped his arms to his sides, and the ball splashed through the net as he strutted down court with points 20, 21 and 22 for the night.

The Jaspers still had life, but Iona prevailed with a 70-67 victory, its 47th win in 86 tries against Manhattan.

“He made a terrific shot,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said. “It’s kind of one of those plays where when you look at it statistically that shot shouldn’t beat you, and it did tonight. It’s a switch with a [6-foot-10] guy switching out. Almost 70 percent of the time on pick-and-rolls with a 1-5 switch, the 1 is going to shoot a challenged jump shot, which he shot. And he made it. Give him credit.”

The win was Iona’s 20th this year — Cluess became the first head coach to hit that mark five times at Iona — and solidified the Gaels (20-6, 13-2) as a virtual lock for the MAAC regular season title. Rider (17-9, 11-4), which dropped both bouts with Iona, trails in second place by two games with five left.

“It’s great,” Cluess said when asked about getting win No. 20 by beating Manhattan.

It was well-earned.

The Jaspers were resilient and battled back from two double-digit deficits. Iona just always had an answer, and it was frequently Casimir.

Nine seconds after Emmy Andujar capped a 14-3 Manhattan run and evened the score at 26 with two foul shots, Casimir sank a 3-pointer. He drove on Iona’s next possession and finished a nifty scoop. Then he buried a trey with a minute remaining in the half to send Iona into the break with a 37-30 lead.

In the second half, Shane Richards’ 3-pointer with 9:16 left gave Manhattan a 52-51 lead, its first of the game. Draddy erupted.

While Manhattan fans were still high-fiving, Casimir snatched back the lead with another 3-pointer. Iona did not trail again.

“They had hit a huge shot, and they’d either get back in the game or take the lead,” Cluess said, “and here comes [Casimir] to answer it. As the crowd was starting to erupt, he quieted it again. I think those were huge, that we had answers, because if we didn’t have the answer right then, the game might have turned in the other direction.”

That direction would have been a statement win for the Jaspers (12-12, 9-6), whose record conceals a hot streak of 10 wins in 14 games carried into Friday night’s clash. But Manhattan still made a statement of sorts.

“We just played Iona to the wire,” Andujar said. “It just shows that we’re right there. It just comes down to one or two plays.”

English made the one that mattered most.