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Billy Donovan wasn’t walking through the door.
There was no Billy The Kid to rain 3s down on Alabama this time, that was a different time (1987) and a different place and a different school (Providence College) and a different team (Final Four) for Rick Pitino.
Pitino nevertheless reminded the college basketball world of his genius on Saturday afternoon.
Hinkle Fieldhouse was the perfect place for Rick and the Miracles to dream the impossible dream, because this was the place where Bobby Plump hit the shot that won the 1954 state championship for Milan High School that inspired the Hoosiers movie.
Alabama seemed to believe that the Gaels, 17-point underdogs, would swoon as soon as they saw its jerseys.
Iona had come to win, and played to win, and never stopped believing it could win, because the longer you give a 15-seed hope, the more trouble you find yourself in.
Every time Bama made a run, for 30-plus minutes Iona answered with a run of its own.
Alas, until it was winning time.
That’s when Bama, the 68-55 winner in the East Region first-rounder, finally remembered it was a 2-seed and, ignited by a pair of Alex Reese 3s, exploded on an 11-0 run.
You knew Rick and the Miracles would be thoroughly prepared. They weren’t in awe. They contested every possession. They had no fear.
“We thought we could win tonight,” Pitino said.
A Hall of Fame coach can make an undermanned team believe.
His Gaels were getting destroyed on the offensive glass and refused to go away. They blocked seven shots over the first 24 minutes. Pitino summoned a 6-foot-3 walk-on sophomore redhead guard named Parker Weiss early off the bench, the same 6-3 walk-on sophomore redhead guard who had averaged 1.8 points a game during the season. Next redhead up. Big man Nelly Junior Joseph was on the bench saddled with three fouls and it didn’t seem to matter.
“We knew exactly what they wanted to do, their do’s and don’ts for the game,” Isaiah Ross said.
Alabama missed nine straight 3s at one point. Missed layup after layup. Was careless with the basketball. They try to play fast. But Iona made them play half-fast. Bama senior guard John Petty Jr. was a one-man gang who couldn’t shoot straight, even from the free throw line. Ross, meanwhile, threw up a corner jumper early in the second half before the buzzer sounded and of course it went in.
For so long, Iona wanted it more.
The Iona bench was on fire.
Alabama was rattled.
It was strange seeing this Hall of Fame coach with the Hall of Fame wardrobe show up on this kind of stage without a Ron Mercer or a Walter McCarty or an Antoine Walker, without an Montrzell Harrell or a Russ Smith. Or a Donovan Mitchell.
You don’t get to coach McDonald’s All-Americas at Iona, at least not now, Pitino’s first year back following his 2017 NCAA exile. That’s the reality.
Pitino is worth an incalculable number of wins during the course of a season. As the late Bum Phillips said once about the late Alabama football legend Bear Bryant: “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.”
And most of the time, Pitino can take his’n and beat your’n, and then turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.
He scared holy hell out of Alabama.
“His IQ is off the charts,” Ross said. “He sees things that other coaches wouldn’t see.”
Nothing was about to stop Pitino from his customary manic sideline exhorting, cajoling, seemingly burning off thousands of calories in front of his bench, because he would coach like this at the Five Star Camp, this is who he is, and has forever been.
Give his players credit. COVID ravaged their practice time together. They persevered through the crucible of the MAAC Tournament. They bought what Pitino was selling.
“I’m in heaven right now,” Pitino said.
And he will be reaching for the sky with Iona College. Reinforcements are on the way. Iona won’t be an offensively-challenged team much longer.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Iona’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with down the road,” Pitino said.
Never bet against him.
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