Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game: Iona defeats Fairfield for fifth straight conference title
Photo: Stockton Photo Inc.

Iona are again champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference as the Gaels knocked off Fairfield 60-51 in the championship game to win their fifth straight tournament title.

Asante Gist led the way for Iona (12-5) with 18 points, Isiah Ross added 13 and Nelly Junior Joseph had 12 as the Gaels won their 16th straight MAAC Tournament game and are back in the NCAA Tournament under first-year head coach Rick Pitino.

Jake Wojcik led the Stags (10-17) with 13 points while Taj Benning had 11 and Caleb Green 10 as Fairfield fell short of their first NCAA bid since 1997.

Pitino completes memorable first season at Iona with NCAA bid

Fairfield opened the game missing its first six shots from the floor, which led to an 8-2 advantage for Iona five minutes into the game. The Gaels defense was suffocating, allowing the Stags to make one of their first 11 shots from the floor.

The margin continued to grow as Iona led 17-10 with 7:01 left, Benning sparked a quick five-point run that made it a one-possession game with five minutes left before intermission and Green nailed a three to make it 20-18. The Gaels stretched the lead out again, going on a 10-0 run over the final 3:45 of the half, hitting five of seven from the floor.

Gist and Ross were crucial in the lead-extending run to end the first half. Gist had a pair of free throws to make it 28-18 and then blocked a Stags three-pointer attempt on the defensive end. On the ensuing offensive possession, Ross buried a floater. Iona led Fairfield 30-18 at halftime. Gist led all scorers with 11 points at the break.

Fairfield opened the second half on a 7-2 to cut the lead to 32-25, forcing Iona to call a timeout. The Stags kept continued to cut into the deficit as Wojcik hit a three-pointer at the 15:08 mark and it was a four-point game.

The Gaels regained momentum as Junior Joseph hit a pair of baskets to help Iona get back on track, and a driving layup by Ross made it a ten-point lead again at 38-28 with 13:21 left to play with the lead eventually ballooning to 43-31.

Fairfield would never get closer than eight points over the final ten minutes as Ross crossed over a Stag and buried a three-pointer to push Iona's lead to 52-36 with 6:07 left.

The deficit would be trimmed with some Fairfield free throws, but Iona held on down the stretch to secure the school's 13th NCAA berth in a remarkable first season under Pitino.