Prior to last week, I’m not sure if I’ve ever used “believe” and “Marist men’s basketball” in the same sentence.
You’ll have to forgive me for this, but I’m going to get it out of the way early.
The program has been plagued by a chronic inability to win, dating back well before John Dunne arrived in 2018. While Dunne secured a winning season in the 2020-21 campaign (Marist’s first since 2008) and helped orchestrate a memorable six-game winning streak last season, a lack of postseason success was a shadow hanging over his tenure up until this point.
Over the past week, that all went out the window.
In Atlantic City, Dunne and his roster—a hodgepodge of transfers, freshmen, and a few holdovers from last year’s team—earned the first MAAC Championship game appearance in school history. Suddenly the team found itself just 40 minutes away from their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since Rik Smits’ junior year in 1987.
Marist turned the boardwalk from a place where dreams go to die into a site for redemption.
And they made me—a skeptic—into a believer. The same was true for a lot of people.
It was easy to write this team off after a 10-19 regular season that saw Marist finish last in the conference with a 6-14 record. No one would have blamed the Red Foxes for another early exit at the 2023 MAAC Tournament.
“There was a lot of opportunities for us to quit this year, but we never did,” Dunne said in Saturday night’s press conference.
Another first-round loss would have fit the narrative. Instead, Marist defied it.
Led by skilled big man Patrick Gardner and spurred on by timely contributions from the supporting cast, the Red Foxes won three games in four days before dropping the championship game to Iona which was much closer than the 76-55 score indicated.
It all started innocently enough on Tuesday night (that became Wednesday morning) with a win over Manhattan. The Jaspers were the ideal matchup in the 6-11 game because they had no real answer for Gardner. Marist used a huge run to end the first half to lead 36-17 at the break over a cold-shooting Manhattan team.
Then, it was time to hold on. Playing stall-ball, the Red Foxes saw their sizable lead cut down to four in crunch time. The Red Foxes were lucky the Jaspers missed several key opportunities, but in March, a win is a win.
The victory took away all the pressure. You’ll have to excuse the lazy gambling metaphor, but the Red Foxes were now playing with house money.
In the final game of the regular season, Quinnipiac came into McCann and embarrassed Marist on senior night in Poughkeepsie. With the outcome already secure, Matt Balanc put the cherry on top with a reverse dunk when he could have run out the clock for the same price.
Marist’s players and coaching staff took exception to the gesture. In the press conference following the Manhattan game, it was clear that the Red Foxes were out for revenge.
And that’s exactly what they got.
Marist never trailed or looked in jeopardy of coughing up the big lead it built. Gardner had 22 and freshman point guard Isaiah Brickner added 21 to complement the big man.
The 75-59 domination of the Bobcats put the Marist community on notice. This was beginning to look like a team that had a chance to do the impossible as an 11-seed.
Often, these kinds of Cinderella runs are helped by luck of the draw. It could be argued the Red Foxes were lucky to play Manhattan in the first round and that they were very lucky to play Saint Peter’s in the semifinals on Friday night.
But they still had to win those games.
The semifinal round saw Marist play yet another game in which they did not trail. After building a 21-point halftime lead, they once again had to hold on for dear life as the Peacocks cut the margin to four late in the game.
But Marist handled its business late against last year’s Cinderella team. With Saint Peter’s out of the way, it set up a highly unlikely matchup against Iona.
Under Rick Pitino’s watchful eye, the Gaels won the regular season in runaway fashion with neither of the meetings with Marist being particularly close. But in March, strange things happen.
The Red Foxes flipped the script from their first few games. Marist trailed by nine at half but fought back against the top seed.
When Kam Farris nailed a three to tie the game at 46, it was a special moment. And while Marist would eventually fall away, those moments don’t come around very often, especially for a school like Marist.
So we savor those moments. We appreciate how basketball helped the Marist community come together and unite around a team that made a surprise run on the boardwalk.
So often, conference tournaments ruin seasons. Look at Marist’s two campaigns before this one. They were both pretty solid, hovering near .500 in the regular season before 40 minutes in Atlantic City led to disappointment.
But this time, the beauty of March was on full display as the 11-seed that hadn’t won a MAAC Tournament game since 2015 proved why games aren’t played on paper.
Circling back to Dunne, it was refreshing to see more emotion out of the Marist head coach. Someone who usually talks in “coachspeak” after games was more forthcoming after the run came to an end on Saturday night.
“They’re just an awesome group,” he said. “I’ve said this publicly and I’m gonna say this over and over. I can’t be more appreciative of this group this year, the high character, and the willingness to prepare through losses and get better. They bring the joy out of you to coach. You enjoy staying up until five in the morning to help prepare them for the next day because of their attitude.”
It should go without saying, but the program can’t rest on its laurels after one of its best postseason showings in the last three decades. Extended stays wherever the MAAC Tournament is played (it will stay in Atlantic City until 2026) have to become more common.
With Brickner, who was named to the all-tournament team, already committing to spending next year in Poughkeepsie, it doesn’t look like Dunne will have to build another roster from scratch. Gardner’s departure will sting, but the infrastructure to build on this season is in place.
So what happens next? I don’t know. There is more than enough unpredictability in college basketball. But it feels like this could be the start of something.
I would argue that it has to be the start of something.
Let’s just hope that we don’t have to wait 25 years to see this again.
Edited by Luke Sassa and Ricardo Martinez
Photo from Marist Athletics