Last year, Iona produced some March Madness of its own. That decision possibly ensured the Gaels will be one of the 68 partygoers headed to Indianapolis for this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Nearly a year to the day after the New Rochelle school created shockwaves in college basketball circles by hiring coach Rick Pitino out of Greece, Iona booked its fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament with a commanding 60-51 victory over No. 7 Fairfield in the MAAC tournament championship game in Atlantic City.
This, of course, was unlike the others. For one, it was coached by the Hall of Famer Pitino, after Tim Cluess led the Gaels to the dance the other four times. Iona had never faced a season like this. Nobody has. But no team dealt with as many disruptions.
The Gaels (12-5) had their season paused multiple times due to myriad positive COVID-19 tests. They went 51 days without a game. Upon returning and playing five games, another positive test shut them down for 16 days before the MAAC Tournament. It didn’t matter.
Iona, the ninth seed in the tournament, won four games in five days — after playing just five games in the previous 76 — and Pitino became the third coach to lead five different teams to an NCAA Tournament. Only Tubby Smith and Lon Kruger also have done it.
The 68-year-old Pitino tempered expectations in the fall. He was returning just three contributors and there was no offseason program due to the pandemic to get his many newcomers up to speed. His goal was to see gradual improvement. During the Gaels’ lengthy pause, he just wanted his players to have fun and get back on the court.
They obviously had different plans. His seniors, Isaiah Ross, Asante Gist and Dylan van Eyck, were key in Saturday’s victory. Gist led all scorers with 18 points, Ross had 13 and van Eyck nine. Freshman Nelly Junior Joseph owned the paint, notching 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
Jake Wojcik led the Stags (10-17) with 13 points.
Iona showed the toughness you would expect from a Pitino team this week. It didn’t allow more than 64 points in any of its four victories. The Gaels now win with defense, unfamiliar to MAAC foes, who were used to seeing them running and gunning and lighting up the scoreboard.
Saturday, when its 12-point halftime lead was cut to four, Iona answered with 13-3 run to go 45-31 and really never had to sweat again. Friday night, Niagara had cut a 24-point lead all the way down to three. But the Gaels held the Purple Eagles to three points over the final 2:54 to assure itself of a trip to the final. Against the top seed, Siena, on Wednesday, Iona found itself down nine deep into the second half. It outscored the Saints 22-10 the rest of the way, Gist scoring eight of those points.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and these type of games go down as one of my favorites because nothing was going well for us,” Pitino told reporters that night. “That’s a tribute to Siena’s defense, but when the game was on the line, and we were down, we didn’t hang our heads and say we’re not making shots. I said just be the better defensive team, don’t give up the three, don’t give up the second shot, and we will come back and win.”
After two years coaching Panathinaikos B.C. in Greece following his dismissal in 2017 from Louisville as part of a massive college basketball bribery scheme, in which he has denied involvement, Pitino returned to the college ranks. He agreed to a five-year contract that reportedly pays slightly less than the $1.1 million per year Cluess made.
He has talked big about his plans for Iona, wanting to turn the Gaels into the Gonzaga of the East Coast. Even he couldn’t have imagined a season like this.