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NCAA Tournament: Long Islander Cluess rallied Iona after 2-9 start

Iona head coach Tim Cluess holds a large

Iona head coach Tim Cluess holds a large section of the net after defeating Monmouth in the MAAC championship game on March 11 in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was one time when Tim Cluess felt so burdened by all the breaks having gone against him that he sought his father’s shoulder to cry on. The key part of that is “one time,” because the response convinced him never to try again.

“He goes, ‘Get better. I don’t care. Get better.’ I’m like, ‘You’re right,’  ” Cluess said Thursday, explaining the tough-minded resilience that Iona showed after starting this season 2-9.

The Gaels, coached by Cluess, did not become discouraged or self-pitying. They got better, and better and better and better. And they got themselves a place in the NCAA Tournament.

They are 17-15 and won their fourth consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. And now they are in a marquee Friday night matchup against North Carolina, a No. 1 seed.

They got here by having taken a cue from the youngest of Henry and Patricia Cluess’ five children.

“He works hard, night in and night out, whether it’s film or studying a different team or just letting us know what spots are open on the floor,” forward Tajuan Agee said. “So that work ethic rubs off on us.”

Iona considers it the NCAA’s sense of humor that a year after the 15th-seeded Gaels were matched up against Duke (and played a pretty decent game, tied at 19 well into the first half), they are paired with Duke’s most bitter rival. Seeded 16th this time, they will give it all they’ve got.

Senior guard Rickey McGill said, “It means a lot. It’s a big stage. I’m going to come out and try to get my team the win.”

Not likely, but what is life without challenges?

Cluess’ childhood on Long Island was full of them. He spoke of his dad, an engineer who worked at Sperry Rand “for about 56 years,” and his mom, who always took in some relative who had nowhere else to stay.

“Nine or 10 people in the house with one bathroom,” he said. “You learn little different skills there, a little patience sometimes.”

He did not have to speak about what everyone knows, that Cluess lost brothers Greg and Kevin to cancer.

“Because of basketball, I’m here today. This gave me an outlet,” he said. “I also do believe that I’m here for a purpose. My purpose is to help young men have better lives.”

That would include Danny Green, who played for Cluess at St. Mary’s High School and was recruited to North Carolina by Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams — Cluess’ counterpart on Friday night.

“Tim Cluess, good guy . . . I’ve known him a long time,” Williams said Thursday. “Not trying to act like we’re bosom buddies or anything, but I thought he was a really good coach then; think it even more so now.”

Williams’ players watched fellow Atlantic Coast Conference team Virginia get taken down by No. 16 seed UMBC last year.

“I’d say ‘shocked,’ ” forward Cameron Johnson said. “We were watching it in the meeting room and everybody was just like, ‘Whoa.’ ”

So North Carolina realizes it must be better than Virginia was last March. Iona knows it will be better for just having been here.

New York Sports