By Lenn Robbins
Rick Pitino stood in the Iona locker room in Hinkle Fieldhouse minutes after the No. 15 Gaels had been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by No.2 seed Alabama, 68-55, in game that the Tide led by one at halftime.
He looked at his players, a group of 13 that had pulled together just before the pandemic of a lifetime hit. The Gaels (12-6) had been installed as 16 and one-half point underdogs. Their season had been interrupted by a 51-day COVID break and Pitino never really got time to put in a full offense.
It’s been a long time since a Pitino team played David but on this night in Hinkle Fieldhouse man did they play it well. After the horn sounded, Pitino had a message.
“I said, ‘You gave me everything you had under the conditions,” Pitino told The NYExtra.com. “It’s step one toward a great journey.”
The Gaels have owned the MAAC of late under Tim Cluess and now Pitino. But they flopped in the NCAA Tournament and the exiled Pitino – fired from Louisville in the wake of a pay-for-play scheme – has been rescued by Iona and has plans to turn the Westchester-based school into the Gonzaga of the East.
Getting into the Big Dance was a huge Step One.
“I’m real proud to be at Iona,” Pitino said at his postgame press conference. “I think we can build something really special. We’re in the infancy stages of recruiting right now. We’re going to recruit bigger, better players. But I couldn’t be prouder of the guys that are here.”
The Tide (25-6), the SEC Tournament champions, are considered a legitimate threat to get the Final Four. But for one half and then some, Pitino’s Gaels kept competing and Tide kept going out. Pitino had done this before at Providence, upsetting Alabama in the 1987 regional final.
But Pitino, who said he’s done coaching at a big school, really believed the Gaels could pull the upset. They trailed 33-32 at the break and it wasn’t until the Tide reeled off a late 11-0 run that the game was decided. The Tide pummeled the Gaels on the glass, 42-26.
“We thought if we controlled the pace, shut down the three, we could win, but no complaints,” said Pitino, who packed eight suits for the trip to Indianapolis because he thought the Gaels could shock the world. “We got destroyed on the glass. With a full year of practice, we’ll be much better next year.”
UNCONTESTED BUMMER: The pandemic wasn’t able to claim this year’s NCAA Tournament but it did claim its first victim. The Oregon-VCU game, a No. 7 vs No. 10 seed game, was declared a no contest after multiple positive COVID tests in the Rams program.
“The NCAA and the committee regret that VCU’s student-athletes and coaching staff will not be able to play in a tournament in which they earned the right to participate,” the NCAA said in a statement announcing the no-contest, which came about three hours before the scheduled tipoff.
Oregon will face No.2 Iowa in a West Region second-round game.
Virginia, the No.4 seed in the West Region was considered a strong upset prospect because the team has been unable to practice of late because of COVID positive test protocols. The Cavs, the reigning NCAA champs, were eliminated by No.13 seed Ohio.
Ohio advances. No. 2 seed Ohio State doesn’t. Any questions about the unpredictability of this tournament?