Iona scored the first win in MAAC history over a top-10 team with its 72-68 victory over No. 10 Alabama Thursday.
In the conference’s 41-year history, its members were 0-119 against teams in the top 10 in the AP poll.
“I can’t underrate, underestimate what a big win this was,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said.
The Maroon & Gold had one win over a top-10 team, which came before the conference was formed. Led by Jim Valvano, Iona defeated No. 7 Louisville 77-60 on Feb. 21, 1980, which was the Cardinals’ last loss of the season as they went on to win the national championship a month later.
“Jim Valvano had a signature win for Iona back in 1980 beating Louisville in a packed [Madison Square] Garden, and they didn’t lose a game for the rest of the year, I believe,” Pitino said, according to Adam Zagoria. “This was the same type of signature win for our program. And I hope we go on and have the success that Jimmy had that year.”
Iona finished that season 29-5 and was a six seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s win over Alabama was the program’s fifth win over a team ranked in the top-25 and first since 2005.
The Gaels needed a major second-half comeback to pull off the upset. Trailing by nine with a little over 12 minutes to go, the Maroon & Gold reeled off a 10-1 run to tie the game at 47. The two teams went back and forth the next several minutes.
Iona took the lead for good with 5:32 remaining, but the game came down to a Gaels’ defensive stop in the final seconds. Crimson Tide junior Jahvon Quinerly drove the lane looking for a potential game-tying layup but was rejected by Iona senior Berrick Jeanlouis.
Offensively, five Gaels were in double figures. Reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Nelly Jr. Joseph notched a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, and freshman Walter Clayton Jr. scored 15 points in 20 minutes off the bench.
Iona dropped its next two games at the 2021 ESPN Events Invitational. The Gaels suffered their first loss of the year with a 72-65 defeat to Belmont and then came up short 96-83 against No. 4 Kansas in the third-place game.
Despite these two setbacks, the Gaels demonstrated they can play with anyone in the country. They defeated a top-10 team and stayed relatively close with another. In Belmont game, Iona outrebounded the Bruins 50-29 but shot 23% from 3-pt land. In the loss to Kansas, the Gaels shot 11-22 from beyond the arc but were outrebounded by 14. When they put it all together, they can be a dangerous team for anyone in the country.
Meanwhile, fellow MAAC team Monmouth knocked off Cincinnati 61-59 on the road on Friday. It marked the seventh time in the King Rice era that the Hawks defeated a high-major team. The Hawks improved their record to 5-1 for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
Earlier in the week Cincinnati defeated No. 14 Illinois by 20 and suffered a close six-point loss to No. 12 Arkansas in the Hall of Fame Classic. The Bearcats were playing some great basketball before they were cooled off by the Hawks.
Similar to Iona’s win over Alabama, Monmouth needed a second-half comeback to claim the victory. Early in the second half, Cincinnati led by 12. The Hawks scored the next seven and ultimately completed a 30-13 run to take the lead.
The Bearcats were limited to 17.7% shooting and just one 3-pter in the second half. The Hawks converted 54.2% of their shots and 50% from deep over the final 20 minutes.
“That’s a big-time win for our team and our program,” said Monmouth center Walker Miller, whose brother Wes is the head coach of the Bearcats. “These guys are fighters, and we don’t care where we are, we just want to play. We’re a bunch of guys that love playing basketball and we just fight.”
Marcus McClary led the way for the Hawks with 18 points. Shavar Reynolds added 14 points.
The win for the Hawks shows they can clamp down defensively. In a tough road environment, the Hawks did not let a double-digit deficit mean the end for them. They illustrated toughness and discipline.
The Hawks and the Gaels are the first two MAAC teams to register five wins on the season. As the calendar gets set to turn to December, it is starting to feel a lot like 2016 and 2017. Those two years, Iona and Monmouth were the two best teams in the conference.
With their resumes already featuring quality wins over Alabama and Cincinnati, the two schools from the Tri-State Area have done their part to boost the prominence of the MAAC.