Iona loses to UConn at NCAA Tournament; will St. John's come calling for Rick Pitino?
ALBANY — St. John’s is on the clock.
Rick Pitino’s talented and gritty Iona squad gave Connecticut all it could handle for 20 minutes of their NCAA Tournament West Regional first-round game Friday night. The second half was a different story as the fourth-seeded Huskies overwhelmed the 13th-seeded Gaels early and rolled to an 87-63 victory before 14,010 at MVP Arena.
The Huskies (26-8) will meet fifth-seeded Saint Mary’s (27-7) on Sunday.
Pitino has been the object of the Red Storm’s affection since at least last Friday, when the school announced it was moving on from fourth-year coach Mike Anderson after four seasons without an NCAA Tournament trip. Now that Pitino’s second Big Dance appearance in three seasons with the Gaels is over, St. John’s is expected to make a strong pursuit of the Hall of Fame coach.
The first question to Pitino in his postgame briefing was whether he had coached his last game at Iona. He replied: “I really don’t have an answer to it, to be honest with you. I have no idea if it is or isn’t because I’ve focused everything on this game, trying to develop a plan to beat Connecticut.”
St. John’s might not be Pitino’s only suitor. Texas Tech reportedly is preparing a lucrative offer. Providence, where Pitino coached three seasons in the 1980s, could emerge if current coach Ed Cooley is coaxed to jump to Georgetown.
Pitino was asked about a timeline for figuring out his next move.
“I have really no idea what the future may bring because I’ve got to look at the grand scheme of things about winning, and winning is very important because we all work so hard,” Pitino said.
After describing the Gaels’ first half — which ended with them ahead 39-37 — as “almost a perfect game,” he said, “I don’t know if it’s right for me, another job.”
After Pitino acknowledged the questions with “I know you’re all alluding to St. John’s,” he indicated that he will be putting the school under his own microscope.
He said the last time he’d seen the university was a 1987 game in which his Providence team escaped with a win. He quickly sent his players into the showers while game officials were determining that there still was one second left on the clock.
“That was the last thing I remember about being at St. John’s,” he said. “You don’t buy houses without looking at the garage and the upstairs and the kitchen and everything. You don’t just buy a house.”
In this post-coronavirus era, when coaches mostly eschew suits for team-logo warm-up suits, Pitino cut a classic figure on the Gaels’ sideline in a black suit, white shirt and black-and-white checked tie. He is old-school with modern-day successes, a big part of why St. John’s is so interested. After a quarter-century slide from national prominence, St. John’s seeks to rise again , and Pitino not only remembers that era but also has a track record of rebuilding programs.
Pitino brought both Kentucky and Louisville back to the national spotlight and won national titles with each. He took Providence to the Final Four n 1987.
UConn began to roll in the first minute of the second half. On its first possession, Jordan Hawkins was fouled making a three-pointer and completed the four-point play. It sparked a 17-4 run that included 10 of 6-9 center Adama Sanogo’s season-high 28 points, and Iona never got back in the game.
“That play gave them all the momentum and got them going,” the Gaels’ Berrick JeanLouis said. “From there, we just couldn’t get stops.”
“They gained all the momentum and we could never get it back,” Iona’s Walter Clayton Jr. said.
Sanogo also had 13 rebounds for his eighth double-double. Hawkins scored 13 points and 7-2 backup center Donovan Clingan had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Huskies. Pitino said “they dominated us at the five spot.”
“When we’re at our best, our centers are giving us 30-plus points and high double-figure rebounds,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said.
Clayton had 15 points, including three three-pointers, for Iona. Daniss Jenkins had 14 points and five assists and JeanLouis added 13 points. But the Gaels couldn’t match Sanogo and Cingan on the interior and were outrebounded 45-29.
“The first half was just about as well as we played all year,” Pitino said, “but the second half was about as poor as we’ve played, but that’s due to Connecticut’s defense and offense. They’ve got all the [tools] to win a national championship.”