iona siena maac tournament
Photo credit: Adam Monacelli/Courier-Post via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Rick Pitino’s pesky Iona Gaels shut down Siena late in the second half to seal a berth in the MAAC Tournament semifinals.

Iona and Siena are two teams that endured similar paths to this point in the season. COVID issues forced Iona into four separate pauses. Meanwhile, Siena couldn’t even begin its season until most other teams in the MAAC were well into their 2020-21 campaigns.

There wasn’t much to separate these two teams on Wednesday night in Atlantic City, but a late run from the Gaels was enough to send the Saints home to Loudonville. Siena big man Jackson Stormo converted on an old-school three-point play with 8:33 left in the second half to put them up 42-33.

Those were the last points Siena would score for the next eight-plus minutes. Stormo drilled a three with 19.7 seconds remaining, but it was too little, too late. Iona finished the game on a 22-10 run to clinch a berth in the MAAC Tournament semifinals.

“I told them at halftime, they’re playing a great defensive team. We’ve got to be a better defensive team,” Iona head coach Rick Pitino said in a postgame interview with ESPN+. “We shot a very low percentage, but we’re still in the game. This is one of my favorite wins in my 40-plus years of coaching because when it’s not going your way and you can fight that adversity and win the game. One of my favorites of all time.”

It wasn’t pretty on offense for Pitino’s squad. They shot 25.5% from the field and went 7-for-25 from three-point land. However, they made up for it by outscoring Siena by 13 at the free-throw line and forcing 17 turnovers.

Isaiah Ross, the leading scorer in the MAAC this season, started the game off slowly but ignited the second-half flurry that pushed the Gaels over the hump. He finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, and a trio of clutch second-half threes.

“They were doing a lot of stuff to focus on me, key on me, and get me out of my rhythm,” Ross explained. “Stay the course. All great players stay the course. I asked myself, ‘What would Kobe do?'”

Iona is the No. 9 seed in the MAAC Tournament, but that’s only because they were limited to just nine games in-conference. They were picked to finish near the top of the conference in the preseason and it’s clear that they have the talent to make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Gaels will face the winner of No. 4 Marist vs. No. 5 Niagara on Friday in the semifinals. Iona has yet to play either team this season.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.