By Budd Bailey
Not too many Hall of Fame basketball coaches have turned up at the Gallagher Center at Niagara University for a game over the years.
Even fewer Hall of Fame basketball coaches have gone home with a loss after it was over.
Rick Pitino joined that exclusive club on Sunday afternoon. His Iona Gaels came to town with a 19-3 record, 11-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. They left 19-4, 11-1 after an 80-71 loss to Niagara. The contest has to rank as one of the most exciting local contests of the season, and it left more than 1,100 fans with a reminder how much fun college basketball can be when the games are close and well played.
“It was a tremendous college basketball game,” NU coach Greg Paulus said. “Iona, what a season, they’ve had. But can’t say enough about our guys – the way we fought from start to finish, for 40 minutes, and the resiliency and how connected we were out there.”
“They have a terrific offensive team,” Pitino said. “When we don’t play great defensively, then we have little chance of winning. (It’s a) credit to them, because we didn’t play our best defensively.”
The victory capped a sudden turnaround for the Purple Eagles. After losing three straight games, Niagara was 3-7 in the MAAC – including a 23-point loss at Iona on January 16 – and seemed to be headed for a dreary finish. But the Eagles had a quality overtime win at Monmouth on January 30, and then beat Manhattan in overtime on Friday night. NU (11-11, 6-7) suddenly looks like a team that no one will want to play down the road as the conference tournament that’s a month away starts to edge into view.
“Anytime you win three in a row in the conference, that’s huge,” Sam Iorio of NU said. “It’s tough to win in this conference, especially league games. To do this against a really good team shows what we are capable of.”
The result couldn’t have been predicted early in the game. The Purple Eagles started slowly in the first nine minutes. They fell behind, 23-15, and only a trio of three-pointers kept them that close. But Niagara struck back with four quick baskets around the rim to tie the score at 23-23, and the game was on. Two free throws Jordan Cintron put NU up, 39-37 at the half.
The second half started with a similar pattern. Iona opened with a 10-2 run to take a 47-41 lead in the first three minutes, but Niagara answered with seven straight points to retake the lead. But with 11 minutes left, Marcus Hammond went to work. He scored a layup, sank two free throws and hit a three-pointer to put the Eagles ahead for good.
“We came out a little stagnant … and we all thought we couldn’t go on like that,” he said. “We needed to get back on track.”
His long-distance shot prompted one of the loudest roars heard in the Gallagher Center in quite a while … but it was a record that only lasted about 42 seconds, since teammate Justin Roberts put a three right on top of it. It was an eight-point game, and an upset suddenly became more than possible.
The Gaels fought back a few times down the stretch, getting as close as 73-70 with a minute to go. But Niagara played with composure the rest of the way, stretching the margin. With 22 seconds left, with victory all but assured, Niagara’s Noah Thomasson raised his arms to the crowd in celebration, prompting the fans to respond with a standing ovation.
And at the end of the game, the Purple Eagles didn’t leave the court until they exchanged high fives with several fans. These are the type of moments that make all the practices and the bus rides worthwhile.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” Hammond said. “I want to thank the Niagara family and fans just for coming out through all the ups and downs. They were there today, and all weekend.”
Hammond led Niagara with 26 points and six assists, while Thomasson had 23 points. The Eagles shot about 51 percent from the field (29 of 57), and only had five turnovers. Elijah Joiner led Iona with 22 points.
Paulus isn’t likely to forget this one, which must be one of his best wins since he became a head coach in November, 2019. Yes, he recognized the other guy coaching down the sidelines. In the end, though, it was all about the players for him.
“Whoever we’re playing, it’s about our guys and our team, and us giving maximum effort,” he said. “Our focus is on our guys and trying to bring our best. Coach Pitino has 800 wins, and congratulations to him. His resume puts him in the Hall of Fame. For me, it’s about our guys.”
Niagara won’t be able to use its home-court advantage for quite a while. The Purple Eagles play their next five games on the road, starting Saturday in Fairfield.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)