HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It was ironically health issues that set up the unlikely matchup between Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino and acting head coach Mike Farrelly (in his third game as a head coach) in front of no fans due to public health concerns created by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
By the time that meeting ended, Pitino’s patented, decades-long style of pressure defense and 3-point shooting was too much for Farrelly, who is trying to quickly learn how to become a good head coach on the fly after a successful seven-year stint as an assistant and associate head coach with the Hofstra Pride.
Senior guard Tareq Coburn’s career-high 28 points were wasted as a career-best 33 points from senior guard Isaiah Ross led the Iona Gaels (1-1) to an 82-74 win over the Hofstra (1-2) at the Mack Sports Complex on Saturday.
It was somewhat fitting that Pitino’s first win with Iona — and 648th college victory overall — after Pitino started as a head coach in 1975 with Hawaii, before making stops at Boston University, Providence (where he directed a surprise Final Four run in 1987), Kentucky (reaching three Final Fours and winning a title), Louisville (reaching three Final Fours and winning title, though one of each was later vacated), along with two separate NBA gigs (with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics) and coaching in Greece was led by the well-traveled Ross, an Iowa native and Missouri-Kansas City transfer by way of an Arizona prep school.
Returning to his area roots, the 68-year-old New York City native was offered the Iona head coaching job after Tim Cluess (a fellow New York City native and former Hofstra guard who played high school ball on Long Island for a team ironically named the Gaels) had to step down for health reasons after helping Iona qualify for the NCAA tournament six times in eight years, including each of the past four seasons.
Similarly, Farrelly was suddenly thrust into Hofstra’s head coaching role after head coach Joe Mihalich took a leave of absence for health reasons in August after leading the Pride to three conference regular-season titles over the past five years while helping Hofstra qualify for its first NCAA tournament in 19 years last season.
Trailing 6-2, Iona went on a 16-3 run to lead, 18-9 as Hofstra, which started just 3-for-18 (including 2-for-11 from 3-point range) relied too much on its perimeter shooting at the outset.
“I feel like they threw the first punch at us and we were falling back and trying to play catchup after that,” Coburn said.
Although the Pride only has two proven 3-point shooters on its roster — Coburn and senior guard Jalen Ray (15 points) — Farrelly insists that others — like junior guard Omar Silverio, who went scoreless in 19 minutes off the bench – will be able to contribute from long-range this season.
“We’re going to take those shots,” said Farrelly, who won his first game as a head coach on the same floor against Farleigh Dickinson five nights earlier. “Omar had some good looks; Omar didn’t make shots [today]… we’re going to stick with it. I didn’t have any issues with our shot selection.”
Yet while Ray went 3-for-7 from 3-point range and Coburn 3-for-8 from that distance, the rest of the Pride missed all eight of its attempts from behind the arc, with Silverio (6-for-20, including 3-for-12 from 3 for the season) missing four and sophomore guard Caleb Burgess (2-for-17, including 0-for-7 for the year) and freshman David Green (0-for-11, including 0-for-7 for the year) each missing two.
Changing the approach after its poor start, Hofstra made eight of its next 11 shots while taking (and making) only one 3-point try. Mostly continuing to attack with layups, getting to the foul line and seeking mid-range jumpers, Hofstra closed the half on a 19-10 run to even the game at 34 apiece by intermission.
After a Ray 3-pointer brought the Pride to within 51-49 with 12:41 left, Ross (10-for-17 overall, 6-for-12 from 3 and 7-for-7 at the foul line) singlehandedly pushed the Gaels’ lead to 60-49 with treys on each of Iona’s next three possessions before the Gaels led by as much as a dozen points on two separate occasions shortly thereafter.
That was after Ross led the Gaels with 15 first-half points.
“We failed to set the tone early for [Ross],” Coburn said.
Farrelly expected Ross to make shots but said his team’s biggest problem was allowing Ross to attempt as many 3-pointers as he did.
“Him taking 12 3s is the bigger issue,” Farrelly said. “That’s what we try to limit. Maybe if he takes eight of those instead of 12, how different is the game?”
Making one final push, Hofstra used an 11-2 run, capped by a free throw from junior forward Isaac Kante (17 points, eight rebounds), to get within 66-63 with 6:37 remaining. Iona responded with an 11-5 answer, to move comfortably ahead, 77-68, with 1:13 to play, on a driving layup by senior Dutch forward Dylan van Eyck (14 points, five rebounds).
Although the Gaels committed more second-half fouls (17) than the Pride did for the game (16) and 13 more overall — leading to a 20-shot edge (39-19) from the free throw line — Hofstra was unable to fully take advantage, missing 13 times from the charity stripe compared to Iona’s three missed free throws.
Thanks in large part to freshman Nigerian forward Nelly Junior Joseph (14 points, game-highs of 10 rebounds and five offensive boards), the Gaels outrebounded the Pride 13-6 on the offensive glass, leading to a key 19-9 Iona advantage in second-chance points.
“There were some easy offensive rebounds that we gave up that they were just tougher than us.” Farrelly noted. “They just wanted the ball more.”
Farrelly was also disappointed with his team’s effort in some other areas, accepting some of the blame himself.
“[We weren’t] playing with the right energy, the right amount of toughness,” he said.
“Certainly, much credit to Iona because I think they did bring that. They played very physically. I don’t think we were able to match their physicality.
“I didn’t like our energy overall… a lot of it’s on me and I’ve got to keep getting better… a lot of that comes back to me to make sure I’m setting the tone the right way.”
Defensively, Coburn added, “We had bad rotations. It’s a collective thing. It can’t be three guys playing defense and two guys not. Our zone is a matchup zone. Everybody has to be on the same page and talking. We didn’t really talk out there enough.”
Moving forward, Coburn is confident he can go from the key complementary player he was on Hofstra’s championship team last year to providing the senior leadership needed for some new players in the wake of the Pride’s two leading scorers from last season (Desure Buie and Eli Pemberton) graduating.
“It’s definitely a different mentality [now],” Coburn said. “We had two really good scorers, good leaders, that left the team. With those two scorers gone, there’s new roles, new positions, new spots to fill up and my game is just expanding on whatever it takes for our team to win.”
Coburn continued, “This game will probably teach us down the road how to defend better [and] how to play better, collectively. We’re learning, we’re a new team, everybody’s going to get on the same page. We’re going to be good.”