March madness started March 5th & 6th with back to back Mt. Vernon wins at Ben Gordon Alumni Gym. The Knights took it to long time rival White Plains 90-63 on Friday the 5th. The next day it was a noon start against New Rochelle. The Huguenots had beaten Mt. Vernon(62-51) in the season opener, but the Knights had gelled since then and added a key piece, Senior Xavier Riullano. The Knights came out hot on the first Saturday of March posting a 18-13 first quarter lead. They wouldn’t look back.
Halftime they were up 32-24. End of three quarters it was 49-43. Typical New Rochelle Mt. Vernon game they are always battles. The Huguenots followed up the hard fought 3rd quarter win, out scoring MV(19-17 in the 3rd) with a better 4th quarter(out scoring MV 22-19) in the final quarter. It was to no avail. Mt. Vernon had wiped the slate clean beating New Rochelle 68-65. These two teams don’t disappoint when they meet. More on the Knights’ road to redemption later.
From Mt. Vernon it was off to the 2021 Hercules Tires MAAC Men’s Basketball Championship at historic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ March 8-13th. The opening matchup Monday the 8th was no.11 seed Rider and no.6 seed Canisius. Rider upset the no.6 seed 78-76. They held Canisius scoreless for the last 2:38 and out rebounded them 38-31. The amazing stat was Canisius held the lead for 32:20 minutes while Rider led for just 2:20 of game time. After a Rider missed foul shot Canisius got a great look at a three for the win and the tap in to tie fell out. Game two of the MAAC was my first look at Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels. The “Godfather”was back stalking the sidelines in a black suit.
Iona ended Quinnipiac’s season 72-48 in the first game Tuesday March 9th. Between games I met
Atlantic City Originals Albie and Rich Battaglia in the Hospitality Room, a converted gym. Albie said Wilt Chamberlain once played in the old gym. For the rest of the MAAC it would be called the Chamberlain Room. We settled in for the second game of the night. Game 3 of the tournament was an overtime thriller between Fairfield and Manhattan. Manhattan Senior Ethan Lasko played only three minutes of the game but his 3 point shot was good at the buzzer of regulation to put the game into overtime 50-50. Overtime didn’t disappoint. Fairfield rolled off 5 straight points followed by a 6-2 run by Manhattan. It was 57-56 Fairfield with 1:55 left. They traded baskets and with 10.1 seconds left Manhattan had the ball as the seconds ticked away Lasko couldn’t get a shot off as Fairfield’s defense collapsed on the Senior transfer from Indiana. Fairfield won the OT classic 59-58.
On day 3 of the MAAC it was no.1 seed Siena vs the no.9 seed Iona. Iona scored the last 16 points of the game and held Siena scoreless for the last 8:12 of the game for a 55-52 win. The nightcap wasn’t as eventful with Fairfield defeating Monmouth 79-60.
Day 4 first quarterfinal was St. Peter’s dispatching Rider 75-60. The nightcap was better. Niagara led by as many as 19 points against Marist, controlling the first thirty minutes of playing time. After a comeback, Marist had the ball down three with 6 seconds left. They turned it over and Niagara scored from the free throw line to close out the win 67-62. The quarterfinals were done and the first four days of the tournament had produced four nail biters. Rider and Fairfield win on last possessionsday 1 & 2. No.9 seed Iona takes down no.1 Siena 55-52 with 16 unanswered points in the last 8:14 on day 3. Niagara pulling out the 5 point win 67-62 over Marist even though Marist had a chance down 3 with 6 seconds.
It was semifinals time Friday March 12. Rich and Albie had me move to the newest nicest casino hotel on the north end of Absecon Island. The views from the Ocean Casino are fantastic. I highly recommend visiting this jewel in North Atlantic City. When Rich picked me up for the first semifinal between Iona and Niagara my iPhone was tuned to the Mt Vernon Mamaroneck game as the Knights continued their “road to redemption” Mamaroneck had beaten the Knights twice this season. Now it was the playoffs and the Knights were away at Mamaroneck. Throughout the first half of the Iona Niagara game my attention was on my phone. The third time was the charm as the Knights won 52-47 ending Mamaroneck’s season. Full attention went to “The Godfather” in the black suit as his Gaels looked to end Niagara’s season. The timing was perfect. I hadn’t missed much until the last part of the game. Niagara trailed by 24 points with 16 minutes remaining 51-27. They came back hard and got the score to 67-64 with 15 seconds remaining but that was all they had left, turning the ball over and losing 70-64. Iona was heading to their Fifth straight MAAC Championship game. Fairfield and St. Peter’s met to decide who the Gaels would play. St. Peter’s won the first half by two 24-22. Fairfield turned it on in the second half winning it 30-23 and got the win 52-47.
On championship Saturday March 13 Iona would again have to share my attention with the Knights of Mt. Vernon. In a Knight’s Basketball Hawaiian shirt, I sat on press row at the MAAC Championship game focused on the iPhone. Mt. Vernon was playing New Rochelle for the large school section 1 South championship. After splitting with New Rochelle during the regular season, the Knights rolled in the “chip” game, winning 62-45. They had “full circled” the Covid shortened season by avenging all defeats to reign at the top of Section 1 Basketball once again.
Back to Iona which interestingly is located in New Rochelle. They had led throughout the championship game while I watched both games. After the Knights get the win on the iPhone, I turn full attention to Iona vs Fairfield for the MAAC Championship. After a shutdown defensive first half, Iona was up 30-18 starting the last twenty minutes, Fairfield woke up and cut it to 4 on a Jake Wojcik three pointer with 15:08left. That’s when Freshman sensation, Nelly Junior Joseph had two big baskets followed by an Isaiah Ross layup Iona was up 38-28 with 13:21 to go. Fairfield would never get closer than 8 points. Final score 60-51. The Gaels were Champions again. Five straight.
In a zoom press conference Sunday March 14th, Coach Pitino and Iona were in Indianapolis getting ready for Alabama, the NCAA tournament first round opponent. I asked Coach Pitino how he dealt with all the tournamentCovid contingency plans? He answered, we will play with who we have… If I have to play walk-ons I will. I followed up with a question about freshman sensation Nelly Junior Joseph, the MAAC Rookie of the Year. The Nigerian Freshman out of the NBA Academy Africa looked ready for the next level. Coach Pitino gave a glowing assessment of Nelly’s humility and respectfulness. It was a teaching moment. I asked MAAC Tournament MVP Asante Gist what it was like to play for legendary high school coach Bob Hurley Sr. at St. Anthony’s Jersey City, NJ. He had instilled a hard work attitude in just the one year the E. Orange, NJ native played for Coach Hurley Sr. I asked Asante, Dylan van Eyck & Isaiah Ross what it’s been like to play this season with all the Covid restrictions and interruptions? To a man they echoed Coach Pitino’s sentiments, who are we to complain, when so many have lost so much?