Deep North Carolina connection for Duke’s opening-round foe

Iona's sole win the NCAA tournament came under Jim Valvano

Jim Valvano cuts down the nets in 1983. (Courtesy The Wolfpacker)

At one point in its history, Duke won 13 straight NCAA Tournament games. On Thursday, the Blue Devils will open their 2018 March run against a team that has played just 13 NCAA Tournament games in its history.

The Iona Gaels have a 1-12 record in the NCAA Tournament and are riding an 11-game NCAA losing streak. Their lone March Madness win came on March 8, 1980, 84-78 over Holy Cross.

It was the high-water mark for the New York program, which made the tournament for the first time in school history a year before.

“We were 29-5, nationally ranked,” said Glenn Vickers, who was the leading scorer in the Holy Cross win, with 23 points. “I remember beating Louisville (who went on to win the 1980 NCAA title). We hadn’t lost a home game for over two years.”

The brightest memory of those two seasons for Vickers, however, is of the lively, outspoken coach who was the architect of the team’s success: Jim Valvano.

“Certainly Coach Valvano is what I remember most,” he said. “I remember him more as a man and a visionary than just an X-and-O coach. He was a great inspiration.”

Valvano would leave Iona a few weeks after that NCAA win to take the job at NC State that would lead to the Wolfpack’s last national championship, in 1983.

Valvano, a self-proclaimed “New York City guy,” was a perfect fit for Iona. He frequently told the story about introducing himself at parties, “Jim Valvano, Iona College,” only to have confused partygoers remark that he looked “too young to own a college.”

“I knew I was home,” Valvano told the author of the book “Flavor and Soul.” “The Iona kids were second-generation ethnics, commuters who pumped gas at night so they could afford to pay for their books in the morning. They were me.”

Valvano’s oversized personality won over the New York City area, including many promising young players who otherwise might have overlooked the school.

“Jimmy wasn’t much older than my brothers,” said center Jeff Ruland, a future NBA player. “He was like a big brother to me: a great motivator. He molded a bunch of local guys into a national power.”

The Gaels made their NCAA debut under Valvano in 1979 as an eight seed, losing by four points to No. 9 Penn in Charlotte. The Quakers then went on to upset top-seeded North Carolina in their next game and went on to the Final Four.

Iona erased a 14-point second half deficit in that game, but clutch free throw shooting by Penn freshman Tom Leifsen sealed the victory.

“My assistants told me we should foul Leifsen,” Valvano said after the game. “They said he shoots 42 percent. Well, maybe he shoots 42 percent in Pennsylvania, but he’s a helluva free-throw shooter in North Carolina.”

The following year, Valvano and the Gaels rode a 15-game winning streak into the tournament, opening in Providence as a six seed. The winner would get No. 3 Georgetown two days later.

Ruland suffered a chipped bone in one of his hands just before the game and also had an injury to the other hand, causing Valvano to rely heavily on his guards. In addition to Vickers’ 23, Kevin Hamilton had 18 points. The injured Ruland contributed 16.

In the first minute of the second half, with Iona leading by three, Alex Middleton, the team’s fourth double-digit scorer for the season, picked up his fourth foul.

Valvano decided to roll the dice.

“We had to leave him in,” he told the The Washington Post. “I thought we were in trouble there. We’re not a club that can come from behind well. He’s a smart player; I didn’t think he’d get his fifth.”

The gamble paid off. Middleton avoided picking up his fifth foul. Iona built a 12-point lead and held off a late rally to earn a rematch with Georgetown, who had beaten the Gaels earlier in the year.

“If we play the way we did tonight,” Valvano said, “it’s going to be an awful long Sunday”

The Gaels took the nation’s longest winning streak into the game, against Hall of Fame coach John Thompson, who was still seeking his first-ever NCAA victory.

Middleton scored 14 second-half points and a total of 18 for the game to lead Iona, and the Gaels had an eight-point second-half lead.

Thompson switched to a full-court press, triggering a 17-4 run by the Hoyas.

“Every game we’ve been in we’ve controlled the tempo in this streak,” Valvano said. “Instead, for the first time, we reacted poorly against the press; we made all bad decisions. We lost all of our points and our poise, I really felt confident before that. They took a timeout and I said we’ll sit back in a tight zone, get the rebounds and each time run 35 seconds off the clock.”

The Gaels had a shot to win at the end, but Vickers missed a potential game-winning jumper, and the Hoyas salted away the three-point win with free throws.

Still, Valvano had achieved his goal, turning the unheralded school into a national factor. Not that he ever doubted it would happen.

“He believed his hype,” Middleton told Newsday. “He lived and believed everything he said to you. He’d come into practice and say he was the most well-known, popular Jimmy in the country — despite the fact that Jimmy Carter was president — and he’d actually believe it.”