In a season full of extended COVID-19 pauses and uncertainty, Iona came together and won their 5th consecutive MAAC Championship against all odds. The Gaels beat the Fairfield Stags 60-51 in the championship game.
The story of the game was the performance put together by senior point guard Asante Gist. While Isaiah Ross, Iona’s leading scorer and a First Team All-MAAC selection, struggled to get going, Gist put the team on his back and essentially carried the offense for an extended period of time in the first half. As a player who’s battled nagging injuries all season long, it was great to see Gist lead the Gaels to the championship victory. He even hurt his ankle in the second half tonight, but that didn’t stop him from making key plays down the stretch to close out the game.
Another player who deserves plenty of praise after tonight’s win is freshman big man Nelly Junior Joseph. Tonight, Nelly showed why he’s the MAAC Rookie of the Year. The freshman was a dominant presence in the front court, posting a double double with 12 points and 11 rebounds to go along with 3 blocks. It is evident that Iona’s offense is much more effective when Nelly is scoring and demanding attention from the defense, which he was able to do in the second half by utilizing his strength and length to finish strong in the post. When Nelly is in attack mode, the Gaels’ offense is extremely difficult to stop, as we saw tonight.
While Ross didn’t play his best tonight, his stat line of 13 points and 5 rebounds shows how much he’s grown as a player. He went just 1-5 from beyond the arc and his touch was clearly a bit off, however, this did not stop him from scoring in other ways and having an impact on the game. If this was last season, Ross would’ve been a non-factor tonight. Now, he’s a player who can be productive regardless of how he’s shooting, and that’s why he was a First Team All-MAAC selection.
For many Iona fans, this season was viewed as a transition year considering it’s Pitino’s first season in New Rochelle. With that said, despite all the pauses and the inexperienced roster, Pitino was able to turn a season filled with misfortune into an unprecedented story. This is just another accomplishment that Pitino can add to his long list of reasons why he’s a Hall of Fame coach and one of the greatest basketball minds we’ve ever seen.
It’s been a wild ride for the 2020-21 Iona Gaels. Tomorrow night we will find out where they are seeded and who they’ll be playing in the big dance. Maybe, just maybe, they have a little magic left in the tank!