After leading Iona to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season back in college basketball, Rick Pitino is only building off that momentum to begin his second season. Pitino's Gaels knocked off No. 10 Alabama 72-68 on Thursday in the ESPN Events Invitational. The victory marked Pitino's first victory over a team from a major conference since he led Louisville to a 71-64 win in the final game of the 2016-17 regular season, and there was nothing flukey about it.
Iona won despite making just 4 of 21 attempts from 3-point range as the Gaels improved to 6-0 by outscoring the Crimson Tide 43-35 in the second half. Five players reached double figures for Pitino's squad, led by Joseph Nelly's 15 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
Joseph was the third-leading scorer on last season's Iona team, which finished 12-6 and earned a No. 15 seed in the Big Dance by virtue of its MAAC Tournament title. Ironically, the Gaels played Alabama in their first round NCAA Tournament game, falling 68-55 after trailing just 33-32 at halftime.
Pitino appears to have only upgraded his roster since then. With SMU transfer guard Tyson Jolly and Tulsa transfer guard Elijah Joiner now on the team, Pitino has two seniors in his back court who were unfazed by Alabama's quality guards. The dividends of Pitino's national recruiting ability were also on display, as true freshman Walter Clayton Jr. added 15 points off the bench. Clayton was a coveted football prospect who spurned power conference options on the gridiron to play basketball for Pitino in the northeast.
The win set of of a raucous celebration in the Gaels' locker room led by Pitino's grandson.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Gaels and my grandson Nicolas! pic.twitter.com/5GeDXb63wc— Rick Pitino (@RealPitino) November 26, 2021
Alabama (4-1) was led by 19 points from Jaden Shackelford and 15 from Jahvon Quinerly. Iona plays Friday in the semifinals against either Belmont or Drake, while Alabama will play the loser. Alabama's loss eliminates the possibility of a top-10 matchup between the Crimson Tide and No. 3 Kansas in the event's championship game.