By Budd Bailey
It’s been a long time since Coach Rick Pitino first arrived in Upstate New York.
Pitino was hired as an assistant coach in 1976 by the new head coach at Syracuse University, Jim Boeheim. He was fresh off a turbulent first season at the University of Hawaii, where he ended up as an interim head coach for a while. Pitino played a role as the Orangemen took some good steps forward toward national prominence in those two years. Then he was off on a major odyssey that included two national championships, seven Final Four appearances and a trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame while coaching at five different universities – not counting a few stops in the NBA.
Pitino eventually landed in his current location, Iona University, in 2020. The job brought him to the Koessler Athletic Center for a game with Canisius on Friday night, which ended with an 80-59 win for the Gaels.
Meanwhile, Boeheim never left Syracuse and put together his own Hall of Fame coaching career. Now, with both men in their 70s, they are still working the sidelines on winter nights.
Could Pitino have predicted that back in 1976? “I have no idea,” he answered. “I just know if I didn’t coach, I’d roll a seven. Without coaching for me, my life is incomplete.”
But Pitino and Boeheim obviously had some coaching genes in their DNA, and they aren’t ready to put down the whistle.
The bus ride from New Rochelle – there aren’t many charter airplanes in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference – proved fruitful for Iona on Friday night. The Gaels had the lead for all but a minute and 26 seconds. Still there’s always room for improvement.
“We didn’t play real good defense tonight. We played real good offense,” Pitino said. “I’m a big believer in that your defense has to be there every night. We got beaten too easily on the bounce. But, when you win by 20 on the road, you have got to be happy.
“We’re in the early stages of a good program. Covid set us all back, so we’re in the second year of trying to build something special.”
The 857 at the Koessler Center had an upclose look at what a really good team in the MAAC looks like. It starts with a pair of big men in 6-foot-10 forward Nelly Joseph and 7-foot center Osborn Sherna, both from Africa. They are not only tall but agile, helping Iona have a 32-22 edge in rebounds. The pair combined for 31 points as well.
“As much as the game has evolved – there are a lot of three-point shots now – it’s still controlled by what happens around the basket,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “Maybe not as much as before, but if you can take command of that area – obviously with those two guys, there are balls you just can’t reach. Opening taps, deflections, blocked shots – things they get to.”
The Iona guards were quite good too. Walter Clayton had 19 points to lead the Gaels, and Daniss Jenkins had nine points and six assists. Put it all together, and Iona shot 64.7 percent from the field – a heck of a head start toward a win.
This was the fourth straight win for Iona, which moved to 17-7 overall, and 10-3 in the conference. Meanwhile, the troubles mount for Canisius, as it lost its sixth straight game to fall to 5-18, 3-11. The Golden Griffins’ major problem at the moment is having enough bodies. They have been down to eight players in practice at times, which means it’s tough to have much of a scrimmage without calling someone up from intramural leagues.
In the previous five losses, Canisius did battle the long odds, and lost by single digits. The final score was different in this case, as the Griffins kept it close for a little more than a half but finally were overwhelmed.
“They are a really good team when you’re at full strength,” Witherspoon said. “We’ve been down to eight guys at times. TJ Gadsden was on the court today for the first time in two and a half weeks. George (Maslennikov) has been out, Bryce (Okpoh) has been out since last weekend. Yacco (Fritz) has been out all week too. When you are in a situation when you have to fight and battle and fully exert yourself to get in the game, it will take a toll.
“I think our guys are fighting. If we get everyone healthy and in practice, I think we’ll continue to fight. … We have some guys who are getting better.”
The biggest bright spot on the night for Canisius was Tahj Staveskie, who had 26 points. The redshirt freshman guard from Sandusky, Ohio, sat out the 2020-21 season and then didn’t get on the court until 2021-22. That’s two years without an appearance in a game, and it takes a while to become acclimated to the college game. Now it seems he’s catching on.
“He’s getting better,” Witherspoon said. “At that position, there are so many things to grasp in your first year of college basketball. Then it’s moving so fast. As games starts to slow down for him, so as he processes it so the game is slower, I think he’ll perform a little bit better.”
Canisius will play Quinnipiac, another MAAC contender on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, Iona continues its annual Western New York swing with a game at Niagara at the same time. And you can bet that Pitino will still have the same fire he had back in Syracuse 46 years ago.
“When you lose your passion, that’s when it’s time (to retire),” he said. “I love teaching, I love coaching, I love being around the guys. It keeps you young.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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