Jimmy Patsos had waited almost eight years for Friday night.
From the moment he was hired by Loyola in April 2004 to take over a team that had just finished 1-27, he had worked around the clock in recruiting, in marketing, in promotions. If there was something to be done that might make Greyhounds basketball better, Patsos did it. Coach up the cheerleaders? Why not? Direct the student section in the art of making noise? Absolutely. Quote the classics to his players so they would understand he cared about more than basketball — all the while railing at them for their basketball failings? Of course.
For seven years, Patsos was Sisyphus and Loyola basketball was his rock. Every time he would push the rock up to 18 or 19 wins and third place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, it would slide back to 12 or 13 wins and seventh in the conference. There was great support in Baltimore: Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti came to games; Patsos’s mentor, Gary Williams, pushed loyal Maryland fans to get behind his former assistant’s program.
But every time Patsos nudged the rock anywhere close to the top of the mountain, the damn thing slid back on top of him again.
Until Friday night.
Finally, Reitz Arena looked exactly the way Patsos envisioned it when he first walked in and saw 2,100 empty seats — most of which stayed empty on game nights back then. The joke about Loyola basketball in those days was that during timeouts most of the students who showed up for a game were on the court — leading cheers in front of a mostly empty student section.
Not anymore. The place was packed and rocking — literally — for Loyola’s game against Iona, with first place in the MAAC on the line. When the students began jumping up and down during timeouts, the bleachers actually rocked.
“This is the game we want to play,” Patsos told his players. “These guys are the champs. Don’t expect to knock them out with one punch.”
Iona is the defending league champion and the MAAC team, along with Siena, with the most impressive basketball pedigree. This season, it beat Maryland in November — by 26 — and there were a number of NBA scouts in the stands to take a good hard look at point guard Scott Machado, who’s averaging nearly 10 assists per game. Both teams were 11-2 in conference play. Iona had won the first meeting by 11 in January.
For 30 minutes, the night played out exactly the way Patsos dreamed it while he was battling that rock. His team jumped to an 11-3 lead and Iona Coach Tim Cluess called a timeout. The lead continued to build. Before the first half was over, Cleuss had called two more timeouts (bringing back memories of Pete Gillen in his days at Virginia) and he hadn’t slowed down Loyola at all.
R.J. Williams, a tiny jet of a freshman point guard who generously is listed at 5 feet 8, had kept Machado out of the lane and forced him into some decidedly un-NBA-like play. Loyola was dominating on the boards and beating Iona down the court consistently. The score at the break was 47-30, and the only problem in Patsos’s world was figuring out what to yell at his team at halftime.
“I’m not yelling as much this year,” he said, smiling. “I like to have chats. Ask the players why I might want to yell at them. When we lost up at Iona I didn’t yell at all on the bus coming home. I didn’t have to. They knew.”
He reminded them about the bus trip at halftime. “Was that pretty miserable?” he asked. “Anybody in here who doesn’t remember it? There’s nothing less important than a halftime score.” As they stood to head back up the stairs to the court, Patsos was still Patsos, even up 17: “I’m tired of . . . bracketology,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing people listing Iona as MAAC champion. Let’s end that talk right now.”
Loyola has been to the NCAA tournament once — in 1994 under Skip Prosser. Eighteen years later, it finally has a realistic shot to go back.
For the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Greyhounds continued to be almost perfect. The margin was 71-48 with a little more than 10 minutes remaining. It looked like the game would end with walk-ons playing out the string.
Except that when you’re Sisyphus, it doesn’t work that way. Iona finally began to make some shots. Loyola stopped attacking and started playing to run out the clock. The lead melted. It was 10, then it was seven. It went back to 10 and then, with 1 minute 7 seconds left, Iona guard Scott Armand hit two free throws and it was 82-77.
Machado — who would finish with three field goals, seven points and the NBA scouts long gone — finally made a layup to cut it to 83-79. But Loyola junior guard Robert Olson, whom Patsos describes as his toughest kid, made two free throws, Armand missed a three-pointer and the final was 87-81.
The rock was finally up the mountain — for now.
“We gotta get Fairfield on Sunday,” Patsos said about five minutes after his biggest victory at Loyola was complete. “We can’t let down.”
“Can’t you enjoy this for, I don’t know, 30 seconds?” asked Jim Paquette, Loyola’s athletic director.
Patsos shook his head: “No. Can’t afford to.”
Moments earlier, the Rev. Brian Linnane, Loyola’s president, had given the postgame talk instead of Patsos. His speech was a bit milder than what the players are accustomed to, but when they gathered in their circle for the traditional postgame reminder about the next opponent, Patsos asked Linnane to take the lead.
“Beat Fairfield!” Linnane yelled. “I hate them!”
That certainly got the players’ attention. Linnane was smiling when he finished. “Big night for all of us, I guess,” he said.
It certainly was big for the players who have endured the emotional roller coaster of Life With Jimmy, and massively important for their coach. There is still a lot left to do: hated Fairfield on Sunday and then road games at Marist, Rider and, perhaps most problematic, Manhattan to close the regular season. The one-game lead on Iona is delicate at best.
But for one moment on Friday, when the buzzer finally sounded, there was nothing for Patsos to do except celebrate. It was a sweet sight on a rainy night in North Baltimore.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.