AS THE CLOCK hit zero in Iona's 69--57 win over Rider last Saturday—the Gaels' first win in nearly a year—many in the crowd of 2,111 inside the Hynes Athletic Center began circling the court in a perplexed haze, unsure if they should rush the floor. (They eventually sort of milled their way onto the court.) Players raised their hands in celebration, but coach Jeff Ruland stood stone-faced. "We went to the NCAA tournament last season," he said. "We don't celebrate regular-season wins."
His grimness is understandable. The victory snapped a 23-game losing streak and saved Iona from becoming just the third Division I basketball program in the last 50 years to finish a season winless. The Gaels' struggles have been due to bad timing (they lost all five starters from last year's 23-win team) and bad luck (three of this year's starters have missed significant time because of injury, and a fourth was ruled academically ineligible). So Ruland has been forced to start five freshmen. "It's been tough," says senior forward Justin Marshall. "But I tell the freshmen every day in practice that they have to keep their heads up; it's the only way to get through it."
They have the kind of coach who inspires toughness. Ruland, 48, led Iona to two NCAA tournaments as a player and went on to become an All-Star with the Washington Bullets. At 6'10" he is two inches taller than anyone in his starting lineup, and he stalks the sideline like a man who wishes he still had a year of college eligibility. One day last season Ruland broke three ribs while trying to prevent the Gaels' radio announcer from falling outside the team hotel—and a few hours later, despite searing pain, coached the team to a stunning victory over Fresno State. "Had to suck it up," says Ruland.
This year, his ninth as head coach, the pain has been mostly psychological. After dropping their first 15 games by an average of nearly 16 points, the Gaels lost three games in overtime and another pair by one point. The losing wore on Ruland. "Most nights I'd wake up at four in the morning and just stare at the ceiling, thinking about it," he says. But Saturday's win should begin to change that. Half an hour after the game ended, as he leaned back in his office chair, he sighed and said, "I feel like King Kong was lifted off my shoulders."