SPRINGFIELD, MA—Tony Bozzella and Brian Giorgis have shaken hands with each other 26 times after a basketball game. The two coaches arrived in the MAAC at the same time, in 2002; Bozzella at Iona and Giorgis at Marist. In the 26 post-game handshakes, four of which came after a MAAC Tournament game, Bozzella has always been the one doing the congratulating, Giorgis the consoling. Marist has won seven consecutive MAAC titles and 28 straight against Iona, with Giorgis owning a personal 26-game win streak against Bozzella. The two—who are, surprisingly, very good friends—will meet again in today’s women’s championship (noon, ESPNU).
You’d think Bozzella would want nothing to do with a guy who has dominated him over his 11-year Iona career, but that couldn’t be less true. Bozzella says Giorgis has been a great friend to him and his family. He considers him a mentor and says Giorgis, who owns an impressive collection of sports memorabilia, has been generous in giving some of his items to Bozzella’s kids.
“He’s been great as a friend to me when I’ve gone through my struggles,” Bozzella said yesterday after a practice at the MassMutualCenter. “These last two years have been tough for us—winning 11 games (in 2011) and 13 games (last year) was bad. He’s been there for me the whole time. I know when people have called him about jobs that he doesn’t want, he is the first to mention my name, whether I’ve been interested or not.”
The affection is mutual, as Giorgis does not gloat about his success against his friend. “He’s got great players. He’s got great athletes. We’ll have our hands full,” Giorgis said after Marist won on Saturday to get back to the title. “We’re their only loss in the last 11 games. You know they’ll be loaded for bear.”
Asked if he is aware of his streak against Iona, Giorgis brushed it off. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t do it. Streaks mean nothing in a championship game. I don’t think they’re thinking about it and I know we’re not thinking about it. We’re not mentioning it and I know Tony’s not mentioning it. You’re the one who brought it up. I don’t want to talk about it. No comment.”
Iona’s last loss this season came against Marist on Feb. 7, by 23. Earlier in the season the Gaels lost by 14. But Bozzella is confident in his young team, whose leading scorers are a sophomore (MAAC Player of the Year Damika Martinez) and a freshman (Rookie of the Year Joy Adams). Bozzella interrupted a drill during yesterday’s practice to tell his players, “We are going to win this game.”
After practice, he spoke about how his team’s naivety is a good thing. Earlier in the weekend, Adams was asked about what it was like to be compared to former Marist star Rachele Fitz. She was polite in her response but privately admitted she didn’t know who Fitz was. “I’ve never seen a team so happy after a semifinal game,” Bozzella said. “It’s all new to them. They’re like, ‘This is great!’ They’re going to play their rear ends off and they’re not going to be in awe of anybody.”
Bozzella said he tried to implement a different strategy in the recent loss to Marist, a decision he called “foolish.” He took positives from Iona’s performance in the first meeting, however. “We have to stop worrying about what they do and worry about what we do. If we’re going to win tomorrow we’ve got to score the basketball. People are saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to hold them down.’ Listen, if we score 40 points we’re going to lose. If we hold the ball and don’t play fast, we’re going to lose. They’re too good in the half court. We have to run. If we have a shot 10 seconds (into the possession), shoot the ball. If they beat us at our game, they are the champions.”
Giorgis will certainly have some tricks up his sleeve for today’s meeting. He didn’t earn his seventh MAAC Coach of the Year Award this season for nothing. He said it would be critical to contest Iona’s shots and not give them easy looks, but declined to get into specifics. It doesn’t take an expert to realize Marist, 18-0 in the league this year, is a heavy favorite, even against the No. 2 seed.
But Giorgis’ run against Bozzella and Iona won’t last forever. Said Bozzella: “(Giorgis) has said, ‘Iona is going to beat me at some point. I hope it’s not the championship game but if it is at least I can hug my friend and know I lost to a really good guy.’ And I feel the same way.”
There is a video that has been playing on the jumbotron inside the arena this weekend. It’s a blooper reel of the MAAC coaches attempting to read a cue card announcing the details of the tournament. In one of the clips, Giorgis flubs his line a couple of times. He looks flustered. It’s something we’ve never seen before—like Giorgis congratulating Bozzella after a victory.