The Loyola men's basketball team has been thinking about its rematch with Iona since losing to the Gaels in New Rochelle, N.Y., more than three weeks ago. Greyhounds coach Jimmy Patsos has been thinking about a game like Friday night's for a lot longer -- eight years.
While an 87-81 victory at sold-out Reitz Arena helped erase the memories of an 11-point defeat to the Gaels -- and broke a tie for first place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference -- it also put an uphill climb in perspective for Patsos, a former longtime assistant under Gary Williams at Maryland.
"I left a program where we cut down the nets in 2004, the ACC tournament," he said. "To come here was a little bit of a risk. But this is a great school, so I knew I could build here. Gary Williams and I talked about this a lot. Climbing Mount Everest isn't that bad, the first half. The next 25 percent is attainable. The last 25 percent, you don't know till you get there."
The Greyhounds (19-5, 12-2) are not quite to the promised land. But Patsos, whose team has won seven straight games, is hoping to cut down nets at the MAAC tournament next month in Springfield, Mass., which would give Loyola its first NCAA tournament bid since 1994 under Skip Prosser.
Friday's victory -- the Greyhounds' seventh straight since losing at Iona -- puts them a game ahead of the Gaels (19-6, 11-3) in the MAAC standings, with the strong possibility of the teams meeting again in the conference tournament final next month in Springfield.
The Greyhounds will likely get there if they can get the kind of production they received Friday from junior forward Erik Etherly and sophomore guard Dylon Cormier (Cardinal Gibbons). Etherly and Cormier each scored 22 points, with Etherly snatching 10 rebounds.
"Would I like to play Iona? I like the style we play because that's the style the MAAC has always been -- press and run and score," Patsos said after his team's highest-scoring output of the season. "It's always going to be a fun game. First one to 80 wins, and he [Iona coach Tim Cluess] and I laugh about it."
It appeared that the Greyhounds would be the only ones laughing Friday before the second straight sellout crowd at Reitz -- a first for Loyola. A 17-point halftime lead mushroomed to as many as 25 before the Gaels charged back behind the inside play of senior forward Mike Glover (22 points, 16 rebounds) and the outside shooting of sophomore guard Sean Armand (25 points).
Loyola, which had held its previous six opponents to 60 points or fewer, did a great job of neutralizing the nation's second-highest scoring team behind North Carolina, particularly guards Scott Machado and Momo Jones.
Machado, a candidate for the Bob Cousy Award, finished with only seven points on 3-for-10 shooting to go along with eight assists. Jones, a transfer from Arizona who had 25 against the Greyhounds last month, scored 12. Patsos had challenged his guards after the game last month in the New York suburbs.
"They were mentally ready to stop Jones and Machado," Patsos said. "R.J. Williams [St. Frances] just competed and stayed in front of him [Machado]. Their guards really hurt us the last time, and [this time our guards] were ready to play."
Said junior guard Bobby Olson, who chipped in 13 points: "We were up at half the last game we played at Iona and we thought we were going to win that game. You can't lose to a team twice and expect to win the league."
Olson made one of the biggest plays after Iona had cut deep into Loyola's big lead. With the Greyhounds clinging to a six-point lead, Etherly threw a long inbounds pass that Olson, a former junior tennis star, retrieved in the far corner of the court as if he were chasing a backhand. He was fouled and made one of two free throws, giving Loyola a little breathing room.
The Gaels were out of timeouts and, according to Etherly, "out of gas." And as surprised as the Greyhounds were by their 25-point lead -- "very surprised," said Williams -- they were ready for Iona's comeback.
"That's what good teams do," Etherly said.
But the Greyhounds hung on, and their fans celebrated. It was likely the biggest victory in Patsos' tenure, but one that Loyola can't enjoy very long with a home game against Fairfield coming up Sunday.
Patsos even has the whole MAAC tournament scenario figured out should Loyola meet up again with Iona, a team that is receiving votes as a Top 25 team and could get into the NCAA tournament even without an automatic bid.
"If their RPI is higher, I think they should lose and then we both can get in," Patsos said. "See, I'm always thinking outside the box."