GAME NOTES: Two teams fresh off of difficult losses in their respective conference tournament finals will clash in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, as the Iona Gaels challenge the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
Iona won the regular-season title in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but they didn't earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament because of a 71-68 heartbreaking loss to Manhattan in the championship game of the MAAC Tournament. The Gaels, who are 22-10, earned a No. 6 seed in this event, where they have gone 1-4 all-time.
Louisiana Tech didn't win Conference USA's regular-season title outright, but it ended the campaign as one of four teams tied for the crown at 13-3. The Bulldogs, who are 27-7 overall, were also disappointed in the final game of their conference tournament, losing the league's automatic bid in a 69-60 setback to Tulsa. They will now try to make a run, and improve on their 8-7 mark in the NIT, as a third seed.
In the only other meeting between these two programs, Louisiana Tech rolled to an 84-54 triumph during the 1985-86 season. The winner this time will advance to the next round to play either Georgia or Vermont.
Iona's normally potent offense was subdued by Manhattan in the MAAC title game. The Gaels only connected on 44.2 percent from the field, including a 6- of-21 showing from 3-point range. They didn't help themselves at the free- throw line either, going just 16-of-24.
Slowing the Gaels down has been a real challenge for most teams this season, as they rank fourth in the nation in scoring (83.5 ppg), third in assists (17.4 apg) and 16th in field goal percentage (.487). Head coach Tim Cluess puts a premium on backcourt play, running with a lineup of four and sometimes five guards at a time. With perimeter scorers like A.J. English (17.1 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Sean Armand (17.8 ppg, 4 apg), who can each create for themselves and others, the strategy has largely worked. However, despite the efforts of David Laury (13.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg), the team is undersized, leading to the worst rebounding production in the MAAC (33.1 rpg).
Louisiana Tech collapsed in the second half in its loss to Tulsa. The Bulldogs connected on only 23.3 percent from the floor (7-of-30) in the final 20 minutes, while being outscored 15-8 off turnovers throughout the game. Kenneth Smith paced the losing effort with 16 points and seven assists.
This game will likely be heavy on offense, as the Bulldogs are also an extremely potent group at that end. They are 15th in the country in scoring (81 ppg), 12th in assists (15.9 apg), all while shooting a solid 45.6 percent from the field. Alex Hamilton (14.6 ppg) and Chris Anderson (12 ppg, 5.5 rpg) are the top scoring options, with Raheem Appleby (12.3 ppg) having ability to fill it up as well. However, he has managed only 13 points in 39 minutes total during the six games since he returned from an injury. Kenyon McNeail (10.8 ppg) gives the team another scorer off the bench and Michale Kyser (6.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.9 bpg) is an anchor down low.
The scoreboard should be lighting up frequently, with both teams being strong on offense. So it will come down to which team can defend the best, an area the Bulldogs have had some success this season, allowing just 65.4 ppg.
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