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Iona playing with ‘nothing to lose’ against Alabama in March Madness

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Iona senior forward Dylan Van Eyck came from Boskoop, Netherlands for this chance, for this moment.

“This is the thing I came to America for,” Van Eyck said on a Zoom call. “I wanted to participate in the NCAA March Madness tournament.”

Iona, a 15 seed, miraculously weathered a treacherous COVID-19 obstacle to win the MAAC Conference championship and advance to an East Region game Saturday against two seed Alabama.

Senior point guard Asante Gist doesn’t expect NCAA jitters to plague the Gaels.

“I just want everybody to be confident, we’re a confident group, be confident in ourselves, and we have nothing to lose so go out there and play how we’ve been playing, and really concentrate like we’ve been on the defensive end because if we do that, I think we can beat anybody,” Gist said. “It’s gonna be a tough task, and Coach always tells us, ‘Nothing’s gonna be given to you, you gotta go take everything.’”

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Rick Pitino is glad that he won’t have to play Alabama until Saturday because his team needs the practice following a season of interruptions and pauses.

Iona players celebrate after winning the MAAC Tournament.
Iona players celebrate after winning the MAAC Tournament.
AP

“They are a unique team,” Pitino said. “About 40 percent of their shots are driving to the basket for layups, 40 percent are 3s, 18 percent of the time they’re getting fouled, and about 2 percent of the time they’re taking midrange shots, approximately,” Pitino said.

The Tide is coached by Nate Oats, who was a Bobby Hurley aide at Buffalo and won the SEC Conference Tournament championship Sunday over LSU.

“They’re a high-percentage, high-powered offensive basketball team (79.6 ppg) that’s very gifted athletically and they’re very well coached,” Pitino said. “It’s a tough game, but you expect a tough game when you’re a two seed. I’ve been on the flip side. … It’s a little time reversal, but still you have to play the game.”

Someone wondered whether the fact that Pitino’s Providence team with Billy Donovan defeating Alabama on their way to the 1987 Final Four could be an omen. “I haven’t thought of that, thank you, that’s great,” Pitino said, and smiled. “And by the way, we beat a great Alabama team. … I hope that’s true.”

Gist, who hails from East Orange, N.J. and played for Bob Hurley Sr. at St. Anthony High School, will duel fellow Jersey point guard Jahvon Quinerly, Bama’s sophomore from Hudson Catholic High School and Hackensack.

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“It’s just big for the state of New Jersey for us to be able to participate in the tournament and be playing against each other,” Gist said.

Here they stand, and proudly. “COVID shutdowns, anything that went wrong went wrong, I would say,” Isaiah Ross said. “I believe that as a team we all just decided to empty the tank, give it everything we had, this is the last chance that we have.”

“Even if we have a problem, we’re still gonna play,” Pitino said. “We have 10 players that are capable of playing. If for some reason, Alabama would not be able to play for some reason, then we’d play Louisville.”

That’s where Pitino won a national title that was vacated by the NCAA following a pay-for-play scandal. “We will play with walk-ons and we will have 10 guys ready to go,” Pitino said, “so we are not getting a substitute. We’re gonna play the game.”

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