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1/30/2007 01:21:00 AM
The Streak Goes On At Iona
A frustrated Jeff Ruland (standing) looks on from the Iona bench.
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- Under a shoe that was under his bed, J.B. Buono located his lucky necklace on Monday morning. "I couldn't find that goddamn thing for a long time," he said, "but today I put it on and thought, 'Maybe we'll get a win.'"
Iona legend J.B. Buono, with his lucky "horns" necklace, during halftime of Monday's game.
We, for the 95-year-old Buono, is Iona. Last season, every time he wore the necklace -- on which dangles a silver hand shaped in the "horns" symbol he has used to curse Gaels opponents for the past 58 years as either team trainer or, even in emeritus, a fixture on its bench -- Iona won. The Gaels finished 23-8 in 2005-06, good for first in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and put up a respectable fight against LSU, before losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Buono lost his lucky charm before this season started, though, and it remained in its unintentional hiding place while Iona suffered through an epic 20-game losing streak. On Monday night at Hynes Athletics Center, for the Gaels' 21st game of '06-07, a winnable affair against the MAAC's third-worst team, Canisius, Buono was at the end of the bench, telling the story of the necklace during halftime.
With four freshmen in its starting lineup, Iona managed to jump out to a 13-3 lead and clung to a 32-31 advantage over the Griffins at the break. The elusive win -- and at least the beginning of the end of coach Jeff Ruland's nightmare season -- was within reach. Of the prospect of that happening, Buono said, "Oh, we'll be celebrating. I've been telling the players, if you win, I'll get you laid. And if you lose, I'll ..." Regrettably (and I really mean that), the rest of that quote is unprintable.
Such is the state of these Gaels and the severity of their curse, that even the prospect of a night of carousing, the effect of Buono's charm or a rematch against an opponent they had taken to overtime on Jan. 18, could not save them. They blew their lead for good at the 13:19 mark of the second half and lost 71-61. Adding injury to insult, their leading scorer, senior Anthony Bruin, was unable to walk by the time the final gun sounded. The only active player who saw substantial minutes in last year's NCAA tourney run, Bruin sprained his ankle in the second half. While Ruland was leading his team through their 21st straight procession of depressing, post-game handshakes, Bruin was crutching toward the locker room.
"I think they're snakebitten, I really do," said Canisius coach Tom Parrotta. "Sometimes you'd rather be lucky than good. And they need a little luck."
Ruland, a former Iona All-American who went on to become an NBA All-Star, and then returned to coach the school to three NCAA tournaments, was somewhat despairing in his postgame press conference. "If I sat up at night, and tried to think of the different things that have happened [this season], I couldn't," he said. "Now our leading scorer goes down with an ankle injury. Talk about bad karma. I've led a pretty good life; I haven't been mean to anybody. I must have a lot of stuff coming my way. I should start buying some lotto tickets."
The Gaels came into this season without four senior starters (and four of their five leading scorers) from '05-06, including the vaunted backcourt of Steve Burtt (25.2 ppg), Ricky Soliver (16.1 ppg) and Marvin McCullough (4.5 apg). Progressively, they were robbed of the services of four of their projected new starters for '06-07. Forward Gary Springer, who averaged 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore, injured his knee in the offseason and is redshirting. He and Kyle Camper -- the junior point guard and team captain who broke his foot in November -- watched Monday's game in street clothes from the bench. Forward Dexter Gray, a transfer from St. John's, played four games and averaged 10.3 points before being ruled academically ineligible for the second semester. Kenny Jackson, an '05-06 reserve who could have started at two-guard alongside Camper, could not get eligible for his senior season and is no longer enrolled at Iona.
On top of all that, the Gaels lost three overtime games in January, and another, to Niagara, by one point. Current freshman starter Alejo Rodriguez, who starred on Monday by scoring 19 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, is too hurt to even participate in team practices; he couldn't even speak with the media after the game because he was receiving treatment.
The prospect of an 0-29 season is ominously looming for the Gaels, but a pair of February games remain against St. Peter's, which is 1-9 in conference. In those two dates lie the hope for avoiding the infamy shared by Savannah State (in 2005) and Prairie View (in 1992). And in the banners that hang over the gym -- 10 MAAC Championships, and eight trips to the NCAAs -- lie the consolation that this is only a bump in the road for a program that's been a perennial league powerhouse. Ruland has vowed to get Iona back to the NCAA tournament in two years. And Troy Truesdale, an ex-Gaels player ('81-85) who was conversing with Buono at halftime, said, "This losing isn't going to last. This season is like Murphy's Law. You're going to see the program come back."
Truesdale then told the story of how, back in the day, Buono had a "special rub" for injured Iona players that brought them back into good health. "He had the magic touch," Truesdale said. In a situation so dire that even the horns aren't working, perhaps Buono needs to come out of retirement.
Iona players warm up 90 minutes before gametime on Monday.