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Red Storm tops Iona, but it’s family affair for Tim Cluess

Just playing game was important for losing coach because five family members attended SJU.

Justin Simon of the St. John's Red Storm

Justin Simon of the St. John's Red Storm reacts with his teammate Shamorie Ponds and Marvin Clark II against the Iona Gaels during a men's basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. Dec 17, 2017. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

If anyone thinks any part of St. John’s victory over Iona in the Holiday Festival on Sunday afternoon was forgettable, the losing coach would like to tell them they have another thing coming.

Said Tim Cluess, “Our guys are going to have these memories of playing in this for the rest of their lives.”

For the Red Storm, the somewhat routine 69-59 triumph might seem a distant memory as soon as next month, when a promising Big East schedule begins. The team’s 10 blocked shots, its convincing 27-7 run to start the second half, the five players in double figures, the double-double by Bashir Ahmed (12 points, 11 rebounds) might be just a footnote.

But Cluess will tell anybody that an occasion like Sunday at Madison Square Garden has staying power. He is one of the reasons the two local teams played each other for the first time in 22 years. His counterpart, Chris Mullin, acknowledged that the Cluess family connection to St. John’s factored into the decision to arrange the game.

The Iona coach is one of five members of his family to have attended St. John’s — and the only one who didn’t graduate there, because he transferred to Hof stra. He knows how much games like this meant to his older brothers, former St. John’s players Hank, Greg and Kevin, and how much he misses the latter two. Both died of cancer.

“It has been great to our family. The passion that came because of St. John’s basketball — being part of it, watching it, growing up with it,” Cluess said, his voice wavering with emotion. “Especially making the lifelong friends that we’ve all made from that school. Getting a chance to play them is phenomenal. I wish we had played better, obviously. But I was really thankful for St. John’s and Madison Square Garden for working this out.”

He made it clear he bleeds Iona maroon and gold. Still, St. John’s (9-2) gave him more reason for admiration. Again playing without one of its best players — guard Marcus LoVett still was out with a knee injury — the Red Storm turned up its energy after a 25-25 first half.

“We just kept on attacking,” said Ahmed, who committed to Iona (5-5) before enrolling at St. John’s. “They do a good job on defense but they don’t really have a good shot-blocker, so our coach just told us to keep attacking and get to the line.”

Shamorie Ponds went 6-for-6 from the line after halftime and finished with 16 points. Tariq Owens had three blocks after intermission for a total of six. Justin Simon continued to be a two-way force, totaling 15 points, seven rebounds and four steals.

“You can just feel the energy in there. I think that helped us a lot,” Simon said of the Garden.

The Holiday Festival isn’t the attraction it once was (Army beat Air Force, 79-54, in the first game, and the total attendance was 9,515). The tradition had more magic when Cluess attended it as a kid, watching through the haze in the Garden because smoking was allowed back then. Still, the event is an occasion for making memories and cherishing old ones.

“The Cluess family is a legendary name at St. John’s,” Mullin said. “Kevin, I got to know him very well when I was in school. He took very good care of me. Time flies, but the impact they had on St. John’s is everlasting.”

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