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Rick Pitino back in NCAA tournament as Iona wins MAAC title

Sam Cooper
·2 min read
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Rick Pitino is headed back to the NCAA tournament.

Pitino, in his first year as the head coach at Iona, coached the Gaels to a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship on Saturday. The Gaels, the No. 9 seed in the MAAC tournament, knocked off Fairfield, 60-51, in Atlantic City.

In the process, Pitino became the third coach to take five different programs to an NCAA tournament, joining Tubby Smith and Lon Kruger. Before he coached Iona to the Big Dance, Pitino did the same at Boston, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville.

It’s been a long road for Iona this season. The Gaels endured three COVID-19-related pauses during the season (including one that lasted 50 days) and played only 13 regular season games, but proceeded to reel off four consecutive wins in the conference tournament. The Gaels trounced Quinnipiac, 72-48, in the opening round before edging No. 1 seed Siena, 55-52, and Niagara, 70-64, to set up the matchup with Fairfield on Saturday.

Iona head coach Rick Pitino yells to his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fairfield during the finals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Iona head coach Rick Pitino yells to his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Fairfield during the finals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Iona had three players in double figures in the win. Asante Gist led all scorers with 18 points while Isaiah Ross added 13 and Nelly Junior Joseph pitched in a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Those efforts helped the Gaels clinch an NCAA tournament berth for the 15th time in program history.

For Pitino, it’s been a long road back to college basketball. His legendary career went up in flames amid scandal at Louisville. After 16 seasons, Pitino was fired by Louisville in October 2017 as the program was embroiled in the federal college basketball corruption case. Last year, Louisville received an NCAA Notice of Allegations for a Level I violation and three Level III violations related to the recruitment of Brian Bowen under Pitino and two of his former assistant coaches.

Following his firing, Pitino coached Panathinaikos, a Greek basketball club that plays in the EuroLeague. After a few years in Europe, Pitino returned stateside to coach Iona to take over for Tim Cluess, who stepped down due to health issues.

Cluess led Iona to four consecutive tournament berths before he stepped away. And Pitino picked up where Cluess left off and led Gaels back to the NCAA tournament.

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