On Tuesday night, while blue bloods Duke and Kentucky battled at Madison Square Garden, I had a front row seat to watch two teams who actually made the NCAA Tournament last year. In New Rochelle, New York, at a packed Hynes Athletic Center, Iona College played their first game in front of fans since the COVID-19 pandemic began as they hosted Appalachian State.
With all of the expectations surrounding Iona this season, it was no surprise that there was a tangible buzz in the arena. The night served as the first opportunity for fans to watch the legendary Rick Pitino roam the sidelines in person, and was also the debut for three starters who transferred into the program this offseason. Lucky for me, I got to watch it all unfold from, for my money (aka my press pass), the two best seats in the house.
Coming into the game, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. On one hand, both teams were coming off of impressive seasons. Appalachian State went 17-12 in 2021 and made their third NCAA Tournament appearance in school history after winning the Sun Belt tournament. In the 2020-2021 season, Iona, in its first year with Rick Pitino at the helm, was impacted by the pandemic as much as any school in the nation. They played just 13 regular season games, going 8-5, before rallying to win their fifth consecutive MAAC tournament and testing number-two seed Alabama in the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, the return of fans made me wonder if we would see a nervous, sloppy opening night game. The result ended up being somewhere in between. After a very low scoring and physical start, the two teams eventually came alive and exchanged punches for the last twenty-five-or-so minutes of the game. It wasn’t a classic by any means (the two teams shot a combined 6 of 37 from three and 22 of 37 from the free throw line), and the final score, a 65-53 Iona win, really didn’t matter as the story of the night was the return of fans and the star transfers who joined Pitino in New Rochelle to spark this new era of Gaels basketball.
As the night got underway, I settled into my seat along the baseline and diagonal to the Iona bench. As the game’s tipoff time approached, the arena MC got the crowd going by urging everybody to hug, hi-five or shake hands with the person next to them as a way to celebrate the return of fans. The final order of business before play began was to unveil the school’s 2021 MAAC Championship banner. That sent the crowd into a frenzy, and the stage was set.
As the starting lineups were announced, it was very obvious that Iona was going to rely heavily on their trio of transfers. The Gales started two graduate transfers: Elijah Joiner, who averaged 11-4-4 last year at Tulsa, and Tyson Jolly, who averaged 13 points and 6 rebounds per game in the last two seasons at SMU, along with Junior Quinn Slazinski, who was a 6-point-per-game scorer at Louisville in 2021.
Joiner and Jolly’s Iona careers began in opposite directions. Joiner picked up two quick fouls and was subbed out at the first media timeout. Jolly’s first possession as a Gael ended with him throwing down an emphatic dunk as he drove baseline. After the game, I caught up with Jolly who gave me the play-by-play of his epic introduction to the Iona crowd. “I really wasn’t expecting it. I was going to shoot the three and then I drove and I was like, ‘Oh I got daylight,’ and I rose up and dunked it. It felt really good, especially with it being my first two points. Electrifying the crowd in my first game at Iona, it was amazing.”
My biggest takeaway from my baseline seat in the first half was the intensity of Rick Pitino. I’ve never sat that close to any college basketball coach, let alone a Hall of Famer, and I was just instantly in awe of how he led his team. He yelled a lot, he cursed a lot, but, as expected, his coaching worked. He never crossed the line with a player, and the players never talked back to him. They simply listened, accepted his critiques, and got back to work. It was truly eye-opening to see such a legendary coach operate from just a few feet away.
At the half, my back was killing me from over an hour of sitting without any support, so I made my way up the bleachers and found a spot up against the wall and underneath the press box. My baseline seat was heaven for any basketball fan looking to hear some coaching and watch from the floor level, but my spot for the second half was the most comfortable seat in the building and was right in line with half court, so I still had a perfect view.
While watching the second half, I spoke to Lenny, the man next to me who was excitingly cheering on Iona, and even more excitingly raving about how much he loved his seat. I wanted to ask him some questions about the team, but he mostly gave me more insight into what I already knew, how good these seats were. He lauded the back support, the legroom in the aisle, the view. I’ve never met someone more proud of their seat selection. All of that to say, if you go to an Iona College game, make sure you get tickets up in the top row on the left side bleachers.
When we weren’t bonding over the seats, Lenny did speak to something that I got a sense of throughout the first half. Iona fans are extra-energized by the arrival of Rick Pitino. Lenny bought tickets last year, which of course he never got to use, specifically because of Pitino’s arrival. He proclaimed himself more of a local high school basketball fan, but said that Pitino’s hire was a “good move on [Iona’s] part,” and was more than happy to buy tickets again this year. He also praised Pitino’s strategy to go out and bring in transfers to improve the team. With the Hall of Famer head coach, the already strong core, and the reinforcements they brought in, Lenny’s hopes are high for Iona in year two of the Pitino Era. “Hopefully they do something good,” said my new neighbor in the stadium’s most comfortable section.
Throughout the second half, Iona was able to methodically wear down Appalachian State. They were led by Joiner, who played the entire second half after his early foul trouble limited him to just the four first half minutes, and Jolly, who also dealt with first half foul trouble, and Dylan van Eyck off of the bench.
The pivotal moment came with 12:47 remaining in the game and Iona trailing 35-34. On the defensive end, Joiner took a charge and immediately popped up to implore the crowd to make some noise. On the other end, Jolly swooped in for an acrobatic putback and-one to give the Gaels a one-point lead. From that point forward, Iona never lost the lead again.
They pulled away in the end to win 65-53 as Jolly led the team with 19 points. Joiner’s strong play as the floor general on both ends and van Eyck’s 17 bench points played a big role as well.
In the end, it just felt good to have college basketball back with fans in the building. It may have felt a little different, proof of vaccine was required to get in along with your ticket and masks were required (more like encouraged), but overall all of the elements of the typical college basketball atmosphere were there. There were “bullshit” chants directed at the refs, “start the busses” chants directed at the visiting team, the mascot, the dance team, the cheerleaders, the t-shirt toss, rally towels, the mix of loyal alumni and rowdy students, halftime entertainment (a local youth basketball team), giveaways during timeouts (a student had a chance to make a putt from one foul line to the other in order to win a free round at a local golf club, he went 0/3 and then anti-climatically wasn’t even close on the bonus fourth attempt he was gifted), and even a replay review.
Postgame, it was great to get to chat with Joiner and Jolly following their Iona debuts. While mask usage varied throughout the crowd, the Gaels’ point guard played his first game wearing a batman-esque mask as a result of a hit to the face that he took in the preseason. Joiner, who will spend at least the next two months wearing it, is no anti-masker. “It wasn’t a problem. I kept adjusting it, and it’s something I’ll get used to.”
Unsurprisingly, both stars were thrilled to be back playing in front of a crowd and praised the Iona faithful after their first game in New Rochelle. “Man, it was lit! I haven’t played in front of a crowd in a year-and-a-half. So, just coming out here playing in front of this crowd, with the intensity of our coach, and the electric energy that the crowd is bringing, I feel like it was amazing and I feel like I fed off of it and my team did as well,” Jolly said. Joiner echoed his teammate’s sentiments exactly, “It was fun. You know, last year we didn’t have fans when I was at Tulsa, so for this to be my first time in front of the Gaels’ family, it was amazing, it was very electric in this building.”
It was just one single non-conference opening night game, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t walk away from that game thinking that Iona has a chance to be special this year. Between the energized fan base, the iconic coach, the fresh new talent and the preexisting, MAAC Champion core, all of the pieces are in place for the Gaels this year.
As the final horn sounded and the fans exited the arena, the chorus of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” blasted through the speakers. Certainly a fitting sendoff for the return of basketball at Iona College.