ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Marist won three games in four days, something very few believed this team was capable of. The Red Foxes, who were just one win away from NCAA Tournament, hung around with top-seeded Iona Gaels for 35 minutes. But in the end, the Gaels wore them down and Marist fell short, losing 76-55 to conclude their season.
“I’m super proud of these guys and they deserved everything they got this week. There was a lot of opportunities for us to quit this year but we never did,” said Marist head coach John Dunne.
Iona came out of the gate in full-court pressure, and even though Marist knew it was coming, they still had trouble working through it. In less than three minutes, the Gaels had already jumped out to a 10-2 lead.
The Red Foxes had a group that was unfamiliar to the pressures of a championship game, especially at this level. That showed in the opening minutes, but Dunne and his staff were able to get their group to become a bit more relaxed as the half went on.
Patrick Gardner and Stephane Ingo were able to limit Nelly Junior Joseph down low, but Walter Clayton Jr. began to get into a rhythm midway through the first. The MAAC Player of the Year was able to get inside the three-point line, rising up and hitting nothing but net, time and time again. Clayton Jr. hit back-to-back shots as Iona led 28-19 with 3:21 remaining.
Despite not shooting the ball well, Marist was able to stick around because of their effort on the defensive end. Clayton Jr. was able to get his, but the rest of the Gaels were not doing much in their own right.
Gardner scored the last seven points from Marist, but at the break, the Red Foxes trailed 35-26. Marist shot 32.1 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from three. They also committed eight first-half turnovers, something they had to crack down on if they wanted to get back into the game.
Coach Dunne’s team came out of the locker room with a different kind of energy, and Iona was unable to match it in the early stages of the second half. Ingo and Jaden Daughtry were aggressive going to the lane, earning foul shots which they hit.
Daughtry had a thunderous one-handed slam that brought the crowd to life. At the 13:38 mark, the Red Foxes trailed 40-36. They were suddenly right back into the game.
Both teams would continue to go back and forth, throwing jabs at each other. But with just over 10 minutes remaining, the biggest moment of the night came for the team in red.
Tyler Saint-Furcy threw a pass to Kam Farris and sent him a ball screen. Farris got some space, and rose up for the three-pointer. He buried the shot, tying the game at 46-46. Marist was even with Iona for the first time since 18:23 was on the clock in the first half.
In less than 10 minutes, the Red Foxes turned a nine-point deficit into a tie game. All the momentum was in favor of Marist.
But a team as good and talented as the Gaels would not let that last long. Iona scored the next five points, which began an 11-2 run that put them ahead 57-48 with 5:24 left.
Marist could have thrown the towel in at that point. After all, they had expended so much energy through 34 minutes. But Gardner, just as he has all season, came right back with an answer. The big hit a three and then slammed a dunk home. The Red Foxes cut it to four after being down nine less than a minute later.
The Gaels were vulnerable, but a coach as talented as Rick Pitino was able to push his players, one last time. The Iona ball pressure overwhelmed Marist, turning them over on countless occasions down the stretch. That put Clayton Jr. and Daniss Jenkins in a position where they were able to leak out in transition.
Marist ran out of gas late as the Gaels continued to push, going on a 19-2 run over the final 4:14. Iona celebrated as the buzzer sounded, clinching their place in the NCAA Tournament.
Gardner showed out in his last game as a Red Fox, scoring a team-high 23 points on 9-for-19 shooting, 3-for-6 shooting and seven rebounds. But just as he has all season, the graduate student talked so highly about this team after the game.
“I’m so proud of my teammates for never giving up. That’s something you can take with you for the rest of your life. Whether that’s basketball or just day-to-day life so we should keep our heads held high,” Gardner said. “Not a lot of teams have done what we just did, even though we fell short. That’s the biggest thing I learned this year.”
Saturday night’s loss is a tough pill to swallow, but this Marist team did something quite special over the last few games. Their run to the championship as the 11 seed will certainly be remembered for a very long time.
Edited by Ricardo Martinez
Photo from Kira Crutcher