Iona provides UNC a scare, and leaves with a memory

For a moment in the Iona locker room here late Friday night, the only sound that broke the silence was that of a student manager standing atop a chair, reaching to peel off a large “March Madness” decal that hung above one of the lockers. He said it’d make a nice addition to his wall back home.

The Gaels, the No. 16 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament, had just ended their season with an 88-73 defeat against North Carolina, a top seed and one of the favorites to win a national championship. It was a predictable outcome without a predictable beginning.

Iona’s Tajuan Agee (12) reacts as the Gaels take a five point lead over North Carolina during the first half on Friday, March 22, 2019 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Robert Willett

Iona, once 2-9 this season, led by as many as eight points in the first half. It led by five at halftime. But those were the first 20 minutes, and there were still 20 more to play and in March, especially, the distance between the end of a journey and its halfway point seems to grow like the pressure of a moment.

Now, for the Gaels, it was over, and halftime a memory. Some players finished showering. Others packed. At least one asked out loud if he could leave now. Some, like the manager, searched for something to take home – a tangible piece of the tournament to hang onto.

He pulled at the sign. It sounded like peeling packing tape from a box, only the decal didn’t move much. Another manager noticed the commotion: “You’re peeling the wallpaper off,” he said. “Leave it,” only his colleague didn’t listen.

Soon one of the Gaels’ assistants coaches walked in and noticed what was happening, the pillaging.

“Can’t take that,” Eric Eaton said. “You can take this – only stuff that says ‘Iona.’”

And he set down a small box with some NCAA tournament memorabilia that had the school’s name on it. The players who hadn’t yet left for the bus gathered around. One reached in and removed some small decals, saying he’d take a couple of them for his brother.

Eaton, in his second year as an Iona assistant, walked outside and sought his own piece of March. He removed the square blue sign near the door, the one that said this had been the Iona locker room. About an hour earlier, a little more, the Gaels had run back inside there with a 5-point halftime lead.

Then the room had filled with so much hope – the belief that perhaps the Gaels could do what the University of Maryland-Baltimore County did to Virginia a season ago, and become the second 16 seed to defeat a No. 1. But then, in the second half, “it kind of unraveled,” Asante Gist said.

He is a junior guard at Iona, 5-foot-11, and he played every minute, all 40 of them fueled by the thought that bigger schools, the ones like UNC, never gave him an opportunity. That was inspiration enough on Friday for a lot of Gist’s teammates, he said – the thought of being judged inferior.

“All of us feel like we’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” he said, “and (like) we should be playing at the high level.”

For 20 minutes on Friday night, Iona did. During that span the Gaels made 10 3-pointers. Their energy made UNC appear lethargic by comparison. They turned non-partisan spectators here into fans, however briefly, of a small Catholic school on the southern tip of New York’s Westchester County.

And then, for Iona, the worst possible thing happened: the first half ended. When it exited its locker room after halftime, the players said little. Some took a deep breath while they jogged back toward the court. In the past 10 years, three other No. 16 seeds held halftime leads against a 1. All lost.

Pressure grew while time shrunk and it all seemed so inevitable when Iona’s lead disappeared in the first few minutes after halftime. UNC looked like UNC again. Iona looked overmatched. And so the Gaels were left to balance the reality of a sound defeat with 20 minutes that suggested it belonged.

“Just to give them that scare – that was something,” Tajuan Agee, a junior forward, said afterward.

The Gaels will always have that, at least: 20 minutes and the memory of a scare delivered. In the story of the 2019 tournament, this game will quickly become a footnote. In the stories Agee and his teammates tell themselves, and others, though, how will they remember it?

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get over it,” Gist said, “because I know what we could’ve done.”

He finished with 17 points and after, he said, UNC coach Roy Williams “grabbed me and said, ‘You’re a hell of a player.’” Gist’s eyes widened when he recounted it and he smiled at the thought of respect from a hall of fame coach. Perhaps that was his own souvenir to take home, and what he’d remember.

Soon, he left for the bus. Eaton, the coach, carried off the Iona locker room sign, a small memento. The one that said “March Madness” remained. Down the hall, the Tar Heels reveled behind another set of doors. Each moment, the first half grow more distant while the Gaels carried its memory, in one way or another.