ALBANY — That was Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, the first men’s basketball coach to ever take three different schools to the Final Four, on the other bench, and Siena had Pitino’s team on the ropes.
During a timeout in the second half, Pitino told his guys, “Look, you’re panicking right now.”
“We knew we had them,” one Saints player said after the game.
If you think that’s a scene from Siena’s 70-64 victory over the Pitino-coached Iona Gaels at MVP Arena on Friday night, you would be wrong.
It was March 22, 2009, in Dayton, Ohio, and Siena appeared to be on the verge of a program-defining victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, leading the Pitino-coached Lousiville Cardinals, the overall No. 1 seed of the tournament, 63-59 with 7:45 left in the game.
The Cardinals finally shook off the panic, got it together and were able to walk away with a 79-72 victory.
Fast forward to Friday night, and the atmosphere in the second half between Siena and Iona at MVP Arena was much like it was in Dayton in 2009, with the Saints first putting a scare into Iona with eight minutes left, but this time closing the deal, in what could be a season-defining victory, if the Saints can maintain momentum off of it.
Much has transpired in the 13 seasons since Dayton, not all of it all that great for Siena, and, for Pitino, much of it solidifying his legacy of success at the highest level of college basketball while subject to some of the harshest punishment the NCAA can dish out. And sordid headlines.
These days, since Iona pulled Pitino out of exile two years ago, he’s the head coach at a small school in a small conference, but as always very much on the national radar.
His name is in the conversation for the Maryland job (Danny Manning is the interim head coach), and the Gaels were in position for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, until losing to Niagara and Siena in the last week.
It’s easy to forget that Pitino was running afoul of the NCAA as far back as 1977, when the NCAA issued a report of infractions from his time as head coach at the University of Hawaii, of all places. By the time the report came out, Pitino was an assistant to Jim Boeheim in Boeheim’s first season as head coach at Syracuse.
He won a national championship at Kentucky and another at Louisville, four years after the scare from Siena, but the Louisville title, as well as a 2012 Final Four appearance, was stripped in the wake of a recruiting scandal involving sex escorts and bribes over several years.
Pitino eventually reached a settlement with Louisville after two years of legal fighting and spent two years coaching pro ball in Greece before Iona hired him.
It would be a mistake to believe, just because Pitino is operating in the MAAC now, that he doesn’t harbor the same ambitions he always has.
As Fran McCaffery did when Siena was making its three-year NCAA Tournament run, Pitino has aggressively lined up a difficult but potentially resume-building out-of-conference schedule, playing Alabama and Kansas in the ESPN Events Invitational in November. The Gaels beat the Crimson Tide, then ranked No. 10 in the country.
He had also said earlier in the season that mid-majors like Dayton and Loyola Chicago represented what Iona should be aspiring to, especially in light of the fact that Dayton was able to recruit a player like Obi Toppin, drafted No. 8 by the New York Knicks in 2020.
“We’re still nowhere near where I want our basketball team,” he said after Iona beat Siena 74-57 on Jan. 25. “I’m comparing to Louisville and Kentucky teams. I’m not comparing to Providence. I’m not looking to compare them to Boston University. It’s where we’re trying to get this program, and we’re nowhere near the Louisvilles and the Kentuckys.”
The comment about mid-majors echoed something Pitino had said about Siena in 2009, comparing the program to the Gonzagas and Xaviers of the world, and McCaffery took the compliment for what it was worth, pointing out that Siena had had “patches of success,” but hadn’t sustained it over a long period like those schools had.
The current Saints would love to have a patch of success like they did back then, and maybe the win over Iona on Friday can signal the start of something approaching that.
Pitino, meanwhile, can still prowl a sideline, at 69, like he always did, and can light up a player in a huddle with the same vigor of his much younger self.
For those of us who were in Dayton in 2009, there were some familiar images as the 7:45 mark approached in the second half on Friday.
And in the aftermath, Pitino declined to compare this to that, while recalling, perhaps wistfully, a time when he was on top of the college basketball world, while recognizing his current station, as well as Siena’s.
“Well, that was a great team,” he said. “I mean, you’re talking about a great Siena team that could play with anybody in the country. I knew that before the game. I was real proud that we won that game, because they were terrific.
“But this team is nowhere near — and certainly the [Louisville] team that beat that team, we were a lot better than this.
“I wish I had that team back here.”