By Josh Adams
Newark, NJ- Old friends reunited on the court at the Prudential Center before the Iona-Seton Hall tilt on Monday night. Rick Pitino stepped back after a few years in Greece into the college game as the head coach at Iona and his old assistant Kevin Willard welcomed him with a pregame elbow bump . The Gaels traveled to play Seton Hall on short notice and gave the Pirates all they could handle in the first half as Iona built a halftime lead. Seton Hall’s depth and talent were the difference makers in the game as the Pirates went on a 33-6 run and closed out the game and notched their first win in a chaotic start to the season with a 86-64 win. The win is the first for Willard over Pitino in seven attempts.
After a heartbreaking loss to Louisville last week the Pirates planned on traveling up to, “Bubbleville”, in Connecticut to take on St. Joe’s. Alas in what has become a theme in 2020 there were logistical problems that canceled the game. Willard reached out to Pitino and while he couldn’t offer him money, he agreed to a home & home series (possibly in the Islanders new arena in Belmont) in 2021.
The Gaels came ready to play. Isaiah Ross was a marksman for Iona as he kept nailing jumpers as Seton Hall’s defense was lagging. They were well coached by Pitino and had an effective gameplan. Nelly Junior Joseph was on beast mode on the boards for Iona and at the half the Gaels had a 37-35 lead.
In the second half the Pirates used the trio of Jared Rhoden, Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Cale to stick a pin in the Iona balloon. Mamukelashvili and Rhoden were efficient in getting second chance points and running the floor for easy layups. The depth of the Pirates was on display as Tyrese Samuel and Takal Molson came off the bench and scored in bursts to negate any chance of a Iona comeback. Rhoden ended up with 26 points and 10 rebounds while Mamukelashvili and Cale had 18 and 15 points to give the Pirates (1-1, 0-0) the win.
Pitino and Willard were both gracious of the opportunity to give their teams a chance to play Monday. “This game was a great gift from Kevin. I love him so much.” Pitino stated ” We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves with this game”
Willard was equally appreciative of the game. He was asked about Iona’s effort and was forthright in saying “In my opinion, there’s no greater coach ever.” about Pitino.
There’s no Kevin Willard at Seton Hall without Rick Pitino. There’s no college basketball this season without coaches willing to work with one another and get their teams games. Happily, these two truths produced a nice basketball game Monday for each program to build on as the season continues.
– Cale looked as confident as I’ve seen him in a Seton Hall uniform. There was a sequence in the second half where he pump faked a three pointer, dribbled to get a better shot and nailed a three. He would have defered that shot last year. You have the feeling the world isn’t on his shoulders this season.
– Samuel could play himself into a starting role. In a one minute segment of the first half, he nailed a three, blocked a shot and ran the floor to convert an ally-oop. Talent like that can’t be left on the bench for long.
– OK, it was super weird watching a game with no fans in a cavernous arena. College hoops needs fans like no other sport. The sound of a pep band, cheerleaders, chants etc..is what these players play for. I can’t help but think they’re being cheated out of what they signed up for. It’s no one’s fault, it’s a global pandemic and a once in a century proposition. The onus is on the schools after this pandemic is over to do something big for these players. Since Pitino was in the building tonight, he retired every Kentucky players number that stuck around after they got off of probation and almost made it to the Final Four if Christian Laettner doesn’t make, “The Shot.” It would be a noble gesture for schools to do something at that scale for the seniors of last season & this one. They should be remembered and applauded always.