ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) – Rick Pitino’s vagabond coaching career bathed in scandal and success brought him back to the NCAA Tournament. Asante Gist scored 18 points and Pitino took his fifth school to the tournament with Iona’s 60-51 victory over Fairfield on Saturday in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament championship.
The 68-year-old Pitino was already the first coach to win national titles at two schools (Kentucky, Louisville) and the first to take three schools (Providence) to the Final Four. He led Boston University to the tournament in 1983.
Pitino was hired at Iona (12-5) last March to – yes, to keep the Gaels among the perennial favorite to come out of the MAAC in March – but in large part to rehabilitate his image after an ignominious end at Louisville.
Pitino had a trying first season trying to navigate a tourney bid through a pandemic. He contracted coronavirus and the Gaels were forced to stop four times this season because of virus issues – including a 51-day hiatus that sidelined them longer than any team in the country.
Led by the backcourt of Gist and Isaiah Ross, the ninth-seeded Gaels used a 10-0 run to close the first half at Boardwalk Wall and soon set up a ladder to clip the nets.
Pitino, his mask on his chain all game, shuffled side-to-side as if in a perpetual defensive drill, yelled instruction, harangued the officials and somehow in the roll of papers he gripped all game had the formula that showed why in stops ranging from Kentucky to New Rochelle, New York, he landed in the Hall of Fame. Well-traveled – with baggage.
“For the young coaches that we typically have in our league, he provides a learning experience they would rarely get,” MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor said. “Rick come to us at the pinnacle of his career. He’s had all the accolades. Now you have all these coaches with the opportunity to watch him. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t watch him in action. He can be kind of animated on the sidelines and can work the officials like a Hall of Famer.”
Caleb Green buried a 3 for the Stags (10-17) that brought them to 20-18 in the first half before they faded over the final four minutes. Gist hit consecutive jumpers to kickstart the run and send the Gaels into the half with a 30-18 lead.
The championship game sprinkled mostly family and friends inside the boardwalk venue to liven the atmosphere and there was a nice round of applause when Gist needed help to the bench with an apparent knee injury. With Gist out, Fairfield’s Jake Wojcik buried a 3 in the second half that made it a four-point game. Gist’s absence was short-lived and he hit a 3 in his return to send the Gaels on their way to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament.
Pitino took over a program used to playing in March. Iona had completed a good run under Tim Cluess, who made six NCAA Tournament appearances and won five MAAC Tournament titles in nine seasons before stepping down for health reasons, when it hired Pitino.
Iona, an eight-point favorite, didn’t necessarily need Pitino. Pitino had coached at Louisville from 2001-17 before being fired in a pay-for-play scandal and had been coaching in Greece. But the mix has worked and better days could be ahead for Iona.
“They’ve benefited from having him in the league and we’ve benefited from the PR,” Ensor said. “Now, there was some controversy, but that was a hiring decision. Once they’re hired, I work with whoever’s there.”
Iona: Pitino joined Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith as the only coaches to take five programs to the NCAA Tournament. Ensor credited Pitino for the inspiration behind the MAAC’s “Time Out for Black Lives” reading program that focused on Black culture. Pitino selected “A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.”
Fairfield: The seventh-seeded Stags defeated Manhattan, Monmouth and Saint Peter’s to reach the final.
BACK AT BOARDWALK
The MAAC has one more year left on its contract to play in Atlantic City and Ensor hoped the conference will remain in New Jersey. Ensor said even in a pandemic the conference met its commitment in hotel rooms.
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