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March 21, 2019
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Iona student-athletes Asante Gist, Tajuan Agee and Rickey McGill as well as coach Tim Cluess. Questions for the student-athletes?
Q. Tajuan, going back to the MAAC championship you said it was a dream for you growing up to play in the NCAA Tournament. Now you're a day from that dream becoming a reality taking on Chapel Hill. What are you feeling right now?
TAJUAN AGEE: I was excited to get the opportunity. But now it's time to buckle down. It's time to lock in. Tomorrow's game day. We're going to treat it like any other game.
Q. Rickey, to you, what was your coach telling you when you guys were 7-15?
RICKEY MCGILL: Just keep your eye on the basketball. Keep sticking together. Don't give up. Don't ever settle for plays. Don't ever take a play off. And just play your best and give it your all.
Q. Rickey, last year it was Duke. This year UNC, Chapel Hill. What does that mean to you to take on two, not only a ACC powers but national powerhouses?
RICKEY MCGILL: It means a lot. It's a big stage. I'm going to come out and try to get my team the win.
Q. Your coach has sort of a larger than life personality. How does his personality impact you guys and the way you play?
RICKEY MCGILL: He comes every day prepared to work. He tells us to go hard every day, keep getting better, keep getting in the gym.
TAJUAN AGEE: 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 against different teams. So that work ethic rubs off on us. And we just come in and try to work hard and as hard as he works every night.
ASANTE GIST: Like my teammates said, it's a lot to do with work ethic. He instills that in us to play hard in every possession. And we just try to come in practice every single day and do what we have to do in order to come together to be the best team we possibly can.
Q. Rickey, as one of two players on this team that's been on this stage before, what's the message been like in the locker room with these guys getting them ready for what lies ahead on this stage?
RICKEY MCGILL: Just give it your all. All or nothing. We've got to play for 40 minutes just like they gotta to play 40 minutes. It's a big game for us, bigger than any other game we've played this season. Just gotta come out and try to get a win.
Q. Going back to when you guys were 2-9, if I would have told you guys you were about to play UNC, Chapel Hill in the NCAA Tournament, would you guys still believe it during that tough stretch?
ASANTE GIST: We always thought we were a good team. That never was the case. We always knew it was just minor things we had to get together. And we always had each other's back.
This team has always been resilient and always had each other's back. We never looked and said, oh, we can't do this. We always felt as though if we just got on the same page that would be a scary sight. And now we're here. So we're just trying to go out there -- we're not going out there just to be here; we're not happy to be here. We want to get a win. That's what we all tell each other on a consistent basis.
Q. What have you seen from UNC on tape? What challenges do they pose? And break down what you see on the court.
TAJUAN AGEE: They're a fast team. They like to get up and down. But we like to get up and down. So it's going to be a challenge that we want. It's a big game. We know it's a big game. We are ready for the challenge, though.
ASANTE GIST: Like Tajuan said, they play fast, they're kind of big. They're bigger than us, but like he said, we want the challenge. So we just have to come out and play our basketball.
That's what got us here so we're not going to change how we play. But we're going to go out there and do what we have to do and hopefully we come out with a win tomorrow.
RICKEY MCGILL: They just touched on everything that I was going to say. I agree with them.
Q. Rickey, what are your impressions of freshman guard Coby White, and how much are you looking forward to that matchup?
RICKEY MCGILL: Just try and stop him. I know he's a good player. He's been a good player all year for North Carolina. Now it's a big challenge for me just to come out and try to get a stop.
Q. Asante, just more specifically, what are you guys doing better now than when you were struggling so much?
ASANTE GIST: A lot of people don't know, this team didn't come together until school started, so chemistry was our biggest problem in the beginning. It hadn't had nothing to do with talent. We always worked hard. It was just our the chemistry.
Now I feel as though we're moving the ball a lot better. We're shooting the ball way -- a lot better. So, and we're also playing defense very well, too. So that's a big emphasis that Coach gives us on a daily basis. And that's really what it is.
Q. Rickey, he mentioned chemistry. How much of that is chemistry that is being your team in the locker room together, learning about guys that just came together and how much of it is actually on the court?
RICKEY MCGILL: Chemistry definitely was a big problem for us at the beginning of the year. As he said we didn't really have a team in the summertime to gel together. As the year went on we just had to keep fighting, just keep getting better as a team, and just keep gelling together, keep getting to know each other. And that's what we did and now we're here.
Q. As you started to win games, could you feel yourself getting better as a team? How did the winning the game sort of improve your confidence as a team?
ASANTE GIST: We always, like I said, we always felt as though we were a good team. As time goes on, we could see even games we were losing, we could see that we were getting better. It was just certain things that came down the stretch that might have made us lose the game or little things that we need to get together.
But, like I said, we always felt as though we were a good team. And once, Coach always told us, once we started clicking it would be, like, a good one. So that's what happened down the stretch.
TAJUAN AGEE: I always felt like winning fixes a lot of problems. So as we started to win, we started to gel, we started to become more of a brotherhood than a team, and I think that helped.
THE MODERATOR: Is that easier said than done?
RICKEY MCGILL: Yeah, winning, it takes a lot to win, everybody playing against a different team every day. So you just gotta come out and give it your all.
Q. You find it difficult, there's so many questions here about chemistry. And it's kind of tough, you throw guys in a room. You guys be friends. It has to happen organically, right?
RICKEY MCGILL: Right. That's really what happens. We all were new to each other since this school year. So we just had to learn what each other could do and just play as a team, play Iona basketball.
Q. Tajuan, did you watch the game last year when UMBC beat Virginia? And what did you think of it, a 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed?
TAJUAN AGEE: Of course I watched it. I've always been a big fan of March Madness. Of course I watched it.
But I think a 16 beating a 1, it happened before, it can happen again. So we're going to come out and we're going to play our hearts out and we're going to give it our all. And hopefully we can get it done.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. It's time for an opening statement from Coach Cluess.
COACH CLUESS: We're excited to be here and playing against North Carolina and their storied program and coach and really excited for the challenge. My players have worked really hard for this all year and I'm really happy for them because hard work paid off for them.
Q. One of the themes that we really got from your players was that during that initial struggle with a losing record in the first half of the season or so, that you really gave them the belief -- this could be a special group. Coaches don't always do that.
COACH CLUESS: I firmly believe that. I think we went through a lot -- two of our first 11 games were on the road. We played at home on Nov. 6 and not again until December 30th. So we had a lot of learning about each other, doing a lot of growing up to do. But I liked the pieces we had.
More importantly I liked how they came to practice every day even after tough losses and injuries and all that. They worked their tail off every day. And as a coach you're kind of looking around, is the shoe going to drop if we don't win soon? And they never gave up. I really did believe at some point if we got healthy we'd have a chance to turn it around.
Q. What has been your message to your players ahead of this game, especially for the guys who are playing in their first NCAA Tournament?
COACH CLUESS: To enjoy the moment, to go out there play really hard, worry about each possession and don't look at the big picture right now; look at one possession when you're in the game. And play Iona basketball for 40 minutes.
Q. When you look at UNC, what challenges they pose, obviously the speed is what the players said. Anything else that stands out?
COACH CLUESS: They have a lot of challenges obviously for the size of our team. But their speed getting back, first of all, offensive rebounds that try to limit them from getting too many of those. We can't turn the ball over. We've again good as of late. If we can do that I think we can get good shots.
We have five guys out there that can stretch and knock down 3s so we're confident in the way we're playing offensively right now. And we have to play a top-notch game, but I expect nothing less from our guys.
Q. Many moons ago you coached Danny Green in high school. I was curious if there were any good off-the-wall Roy Williams recruiting stories when you first ran into each other that you could share?
COACH CLUESS: In all fairness, the first time I met him we had just won the Beach Ball Classic. I met Coach Williams and had my boys and my wife with me, and he was a gracious, terrific man to meet. And when I just ran into him today, it's the first time I've really talked to him since that day. And he's the same exact way.
I love how hard he works with players -- I thanked him for making Danny Green a pro because we entrusted Danny with him. I knew it was the right spot for Danny because Danny was the kind of young man who would work really hard and just listen to his coach, and I didn't know any coaches better in the business than him, in all fairness.
So I don't have any of those other kinds of stories, but it was tremendous Danny was there, and it's a tremendous honor and privilege. But, boy, am I looking forward to tomorrow.
Q. A lot of players talked about a need to build chemistry. What kinds of things did you do to help build chemistry?
COACH CLUESS: That's a good one. Sometimes adversity builds chemistry. Sounds a little crazy but it does. Sometimes you find out what their true beliefs are individually and what they're looking for out of it when things are bad. So not only can you get a read on players when things are going well, but I think when things are going back you have to try to figure out what makes each other player tick and then how to bring it together. The players themselves have to want to bring it together.
Early on, in fairness, they were fighting each other a lot. I think that chemistry grew to where we want to win and we're going to do it the right way. And our senior leadership in Rickey McGill and E.J. Crawford as a junior started like telling guys you've got to do what we're asking you to do. You've got to work harder and continue to develop and don't worry, it's going to be okay.
We've been through some tough times in our program before and found a way. I think they helped start the belief and it got infectious within our team.
Q. What are your impressions of UNC freshman Coby White and the matchup problem he possesses?
COACH CLUESS: He's terrific. He gets down the floor in three to four dribbles. In about two to three seconds he's down in the other end makes place for them. And our job is to get back on D and slow him down and build a wall in front of him and not just let him have his way the whole game.
I think Rickey McGill and Tajuan Agee and E.J. Crawford and Asante Gist and Ben Perez and anyone else we play is up to that challenge. I think we know what we have to do whether we're capable of it is whether or not we'll have a chance of doing it in this game. And I think we're capable of doing it.
Q. You have a lot of guys who maybe aren't going to get recruited by North Carolina. What do they get out of playing at Iona and what do they get from playing in this?
COACH CLUESS: Iona gets a lot of things. First of all, people around the country get to know who Iona is, not just our basketball program but our school. It helps our enrollment. It helps our applications. For us, recruiting-wise, it helps us recruit on a broader base because more people know about who we are and the success we've had and our style of play. And if you want to have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, Iona is a school you should be looking at.
If you want to do some special things get a great education, I don't know if you saw the piece on the Final Four for that academic piece that came out, Iona made it to the Final Four (indiscernible) if you take all the programs in this tournament. And so I think we bring a lot to the table.
Q. I have to get your thoughts on this, what did you think about the year that your alma mater had this year in basketball?
COACH CLUESS: Which one?
COACH CLUESS: I'm just kidding with you. I thought they did a terrific job. Joe did a terrific job. They were terrific. I thought they were beating North Carolina State the other night. I was rooting for them. They were close to getting in the tournament. I wished they'd won that championship game. But they've really turned the corner with this program over there.
Q. You've been on this stage five times before. Is this one more rewarding than the ones before it given what this group has gone through?
COACH CLUESS: I think you can sit there when 2-9 and I said it to my players -- and I meant it -- just imagine what the story would be if we go from 2-9 to getting to play in the NCAA Tournament. And you are looking at yourself and everyone's looking at me, like, are you crazy? And part of me is, I'm saying to myself, am I crazy?
But reality is when you do that and come back, and you can look back from where we were to where we are now it feels like it's been several years, not a few months. And I'm proud of these guys because I've never coached a team that was seven games under .500 and won a championship. In fairness, in my 30-something years of coaching, it's never happened.
To me, it was special because it was something brand new that the players really worked hard for. My assistant coaches worked their tails off to give these guys this opportunity. So I'm so proud of all of them and so happy for all of them to get this moment.
Q. We sensed from hearing from them that they didn't want to give up because you didn't want to give up.
COACH CLUESS: My father and mother did not raise me to ever give up. And that goes for my whole family, brothers and sisters. We were born one way, to fight a tough fight and fight through life's adversities. And I truly believe that's what makes you strong and I think you find out what you're about at those points. And you have to try to help people along the way and guide and lead people. And that's what we're supposed to do as coaches.
Q. Sounds like an old Iona coach?
COACH CLUESS: Yes, I was fortunate enough to know him.
Q. What's it been like to see where Rickey McGill develop from where he was as a freshman to where is now -- four MAAC championships, (indiscernible) tournaments? What has it been like to see him develop as a player and a person?
COACH CLUESS: Again, I'm going to go to work ethic on it. Being raised with the work ethic I was, there's nothing better to me than to see somebody working for everything they've gotten. He played sparingly as a freshman.
You know the story about us saying he maybe should look at another school at the end of freshman year because he wasn't working up to our standards. And Rickey took the challenge of starting to work harder and got better and better and better each year.
And that's what we're about, our program is about guys who want to work hard become special, guys who want to become college graduates and a chance to play professionally and enjoy their college experience. And he really has done it to the fullest and he really represents Iona basketball.
Q. Scott just got picked up by the Lakers a couple hours ago. To have Scott, MoMo, A.J. and now Rickey, how much of an accomplishment is it for this program to turn out such a great lineage of point guards?
COACH CLUESS: I think it's an accomplishment for them. I'm glad we're a part of it. But they're the ones who put in the hard work. We may lead them but they're the ones who had to get in the gym and put all those hours in, plus the hours on their own and all the training that goes with Kelly Shaver, our strength and conditioning coach.
I'm really happy for Scott. Again someone who is kind of fighting, fighting, fighting for that opportunity over years, had injuries, never gave up. And here he is, he'll be playing with the Lakers for the next ten days and hopefully more.
Q. You made reference to the way you were brought up and the work ethic. Can you describe that household, what that was like and --
COACH CLUESS: Honestly, it was the best thing that anybody could ever dream of. Youngest of five siblings. Two parents in the house that worked their tail off. They were never able to go to college or anything like that. They worked to put food on the table for their families. They were the first generation here.
Myself and my siblings were the first ones to go to college. Everything was about working hard and doing your best. And really competitive. Everyone, not just my dad and my brothers and my sister, my mom was ultra competitive.
Everything we did, there was a winner and loser. Every time we were sitting down at the table for dinner, there was some kind of game going on that was a challenge and we were being challenged.
And my father would have great stories. But he would make up facts that we knew were made up and he would just tell you go to the library and prove it. Now I could swear I thought my father worked in a library because I heard that line so many times. But he just wanted us to be able to stand up for ourselves and find our own beliefs and fight through things.
And I remember going home to him, like in today's day and age, if things weren't going well on teams or something like that, and I complained one time to him about it. He goes, "Get better. I don't care. Get better." I'm, like, "You're right."
And I think I've taken that philosophy through my family. And I was fortunate to have Coach Morris from St. Agnes High School have that same philosophy. I was underneath him for four years as well. I think that built the person I am.
And obviously I think you know a little bit more about my family history, going through those things, I had people because of basketball I'm here today, because some people in my life helped keep me on track through those hard times. And this gave me an outlet. And I also do believe that I'm here for a purpose. My purpose is to help young men have better lives.
Q. What did they do, what did your folks do?
COACH CLUESS: My dad was an engineer for Sperry Rand for about with 56 years for the same company. And my mom took care of everyone in the family. We always had a grandparent, aunt or uncle, someone who didn't have a place to stay were living with us. We had nine or ten people in the house with one bathroom. You had to learn a little bit -- little different skills there, a little patience sometimes.
Q. You mentioned how you want your players to enjoy the moment. How do you get your players not only to enjoy the moment but also realize at the same time that we have a job to do tomorrow?
COACH CLUESS: I think we have not changed how we work at things. The same way we're preparing for every other game. And everything we did this year was about the game in front of us. It was never about down the road, what we could be. It was about what's happening in the game in front of us, how we're going to get ready for it, how we're going to warm up for it, what we need to do in each four-minute segment and each play.
Our whole thing to my players is that worry about the play you're involved with, not the previous -- learn from the previous one, but don't dwell on it. Don't get upset about it. Don't look at the referees. Don't complain about it. Make the next play.
If the ball is on the ground, dive on it. Sometimes something that simple, taking a charge, diving on a loose ball, getting a 50/50 ball, takes away a lot of the adrenaline that flowing in a pregame situation like this.
Basketball is basketball. If you're focused, once that game starts, you really don't see anything beyond the court. Like I wouldn't be able to tell you tomorrow if there's one person in the gym or 20,000, because once the game starts, it's all about what's right in front of you. And I think our players have learned to focus much better in that way as well.
Q. Because of all your preparation as a coach, can you enjoy the moment?
COACH CLUESS: I am enjoying it. We had a little more time, a few more days than normal to prepare for this. And I think I'm just enjoying my family being here again and all the coaches' families and seeing it through their eyes as well. Some of my coaches have very young children. It's the first time they're going through it. So to watch their expressions as they see different things, it's great.
And a lot of my players have never been here before. So I'm getting to live it all again through their eyes and I just love it.
Q. You've obviously given a lot of credit to your staff and the players, but do you feel like this is your best coaching job of your career?
COACH CLUESS: I'm not the one to judge that. All I know is again I don't ever give up on what we're doing. And I'm going to tell you there's one point in the season where I came home and I was kind of dejected with the work ethic in practice. We had a game coming up in two days. I half jokingly, half maybe, you know what, I don't know if I'm going to watch that film tonight on this team because I'm so mad at these guys; they don't care.
My son turns to me and says, "Dad, it doesn't matter what you think's going to happen, you're going to do your job just like you always have." I loved that response from him. Like, boy, he's been around me for a while.
And of course I did that. But it was great to hear from another voice saying you're going to do your job because that's what you always do and you are going to give it everything you have. This way, they will too.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports