ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Roland Griffin scored a career-high 29 points, Zach Lewis added 20, 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.
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.
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.
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 their final four games before coming alive in the tournament.
Griffin had 17 points in the first half and Lewis 13 as Iona took advantage of sloppy play by the Stags, scoring 10 points off their 10 turnovers. Nelson was the lone Fairfield player in double figures with 17 as the Stags trailed 43-37 at the break.
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.
A layup by Jonathan Kasibabu completed a 10-4 run that narrowed the gap to 75-69 with a minute left, but the Gaels sank four free throws in the final seconds.
Nelson led Fairfield with 25 points, and Jesus Cruz and Wassef Methnani each had 14.
Lewis was named tournament MVP.
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. Nelson and Cruz each drained 3s to help make up for the early miscues. A 3 from the left wing by Nelson pulled Fairfield within 17-15 at 12:13, and neither team led by more than four the rest of the half until McGill hit a wild left-handed scoop off the glass at the halftime buzzer to give Iona a 43-37 lead. Fairfield finished 7 of 12 from behind the arc in the period, four by Nelson, but in close the Stags were awful. They were outscored 24-8 in the paint and missed four layups in the final 4 minutes, two by 6-foot-7 freshman Omar El-Sheikh, and finished with a 44-22 deficit in close.
FREE THROW WOES
Nelson and Flavors combined to make 10 of 10 free throws in the final 2:11 of the Stags’ semifinal win to seal it as Fairfield missed only one of 22 foul shots, hitting all 19 in the second half. Against Iona, they finished 10 of 20.
Fairfield: The Stags lose senior and leading scorer 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.