As the final seconds melted away in Fairfield's 85-75 upset victory over top-seeded Iona in Sunday afternoon's first MAAC semifinal, the jubilant Stags crowd couldn't resist taunting the crestfallen Gaels.
"N-I-T, N-I-T, N-I-T," they chanted.
Indeed Iona is almost certainly NIT-bound, and while that's a great for Fairfield, it's a loss for the rest of us.
Thanks to a high-powered offense fueled by the trio of point guard Scott Machado, forward Mike Glover and Arizona transfer MoMo Jones, Iona would likely have been a trendy upset pick had it made the NCAA tournament. Instead the Gaels must settle for a second straight NIT appearance, small consolation for a senior-laden team with higher aspirations and for viewers who would have enjoyed watching them take a swing at a higher seed.
Iona has nobody to blame but itself, of course, for its current predicament.
The Gaels had opportunities to break into the at-large conversation, but a 91-90 opening round loss to Purdue in the Puerto Rico Invitational looms large, as do a few losses to lesser opponents like Hofstra and Siena. Even so, Iona was well-positioned to earn a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament had it managed to win the conference tournament in a league it won by two games in the regular season.
The semifinal loss to fourth-seeded Fairfield was especially surprising because the Stags played without star guard Derek Needham, who suffered a foot injury against Iona the previous week.
Fairfield won with Needham sidelined thanks largely to a brilliant 26-point, 12-rebound effort from forward Rakim Sanders. The Stags took the lead for good in the final six minutes and pulled away when Iona began rushing shots, making errant passes and crumbling under the pressure of the moment.
With 25 wins and a solid No. 40 RPI, Iona will surely lobby for an at-large bid, but a closer look at the Gaels' profile reveals they probably haven't accomplished enough. The two best teams they've beaten are Saint Joseph's and Nevada, solid wins but not enough for Iona to hear it's name called next Sunday and avoid an offseason of regret.