Iona suffers its second March heartbreak

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- The tears rolling down Scott Machado's face in Iona's postgame news conference spoke volumes.

Losing a championship game -- even the championship game of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament -- hurts.

"We had a good run at it," Machado said. "It's upsetting. That's two championships in a row."

The junior point guard was referring to the two championship games his team has lost this month. Iona was 40 minutes away from going to the NCAA tournament on March 7, before getting upset by St. Peter's in the MAAC title game, 62-57. And on Wednesday night, the Gaels squandered another opportunity to win a postseason tourney, falling at home to Santa Clara, 76-69.

On paper, it looked like a good recipe for the home team. Iona was one of the best offensive teams in the country -- ranked in the top 15 in points per game (79.3) and field goal percentage (47.8). Santa Clara was ranked lower than 250 (out of 336 schools) in points allowed and defensive field goal percentage.

Plus Iona had a packed house of 2,200 at the Hynes Center, while Santa Clara had to travel cross-country.

But Santa Clara took a 38-28 halftime lead. And even though Iona made an early run after intermission to tie the game at 40, the Broncos simply took off again after that, running away with the victory.

In the end, Iona shot just 26-for-62 from the field (41.9 percent). And the Gaels were outrebounded by a 50-33 margin, with Santa Clara boasting a 20-8 advantage on second-chance points.

"We can't shoot the way we shot the basketball," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "And we just don't have the horses to compete with them on the boards."

Iona finished its first season under Cluess -- who came over from Division II C.W. Post to replace Kevin Willard, who left for Seton Hall -- with a record of 25-12. That would be considered pretty successful by many people's standards. Cluess, however, is not satisfied.

"No, I wanted to win," Cluess said. "I'm really proud of our guys, and I think they worked their tails off. But I didn't come here to lose."

True, they did have a golden opportunity to go to the Big Dance -- facing an opponent in the MAAC championship game that they had already beaten twice, by 18 and 14 points. But they got to play deep into March nonetheless -- and their coach thinks the CIT tournament provided some very valuable experience.

"I think it's been great," Cluess said. "I think it's given us a chance to play four more games together, develop our younger players. It definitely gave me a look at guys in lose-and-you're-done situations. So I could see who could step up in those situations and which players struggled. ... I'm just hoping the hunger within our players grows from getting so close twice but not getting over that hump. They have to realize there's still a lot more work, even more than they have done, to take it to the next level.

"I think that our bar has been raised, for the expectations for future teams here. And what we expect to do has definitely been raised."

"It was very fun, just to continue playing and further our career," said Iona guard Rashon Dwight, who played in his final college game on Wednesday night, finishing with six points. "It didn't end how we wanted to, but I think we set a foundation -- these guys next year are gonna continue to work hard, they're gonna use this and hopefully be in the NCAA tournament and win championships."

Iona fans do have reason for optimism. The core of this team is returning, led by double-double machine Mike Glover, who had 22 points and 12 rebounds against Santa Clara. And Machado, who was second in the country in assists per game this season (7.6), has one more year, too.

But that did not stop him from shedding tears on Wednesday night. Because whatever stage of your career you're in, and whatever tournament you're playing in, if you're a college basketball player, one thing never changes:

Losing in March breaks your heart.