By Ronak Patel
Springfield, Mass. — There were enormous expectations coming into this season for Manhattan and for second year head coach Steve Masiello. Last season, the Jaspers won 21 games, a 15-game improvement from the prior season.
The Jaspers were picked to finish second in the MAAC Preseason Poll by the coaches. They were returning nearly the entire team saved for graduated guard Kidani Brutus. The main cog offensively was supposed to be senior guard George Beamon, who averaged 19 points a game.
They were also hoping that Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey would become eligible. But as the case in sports, things do not go according to a script or your best laid intentions. Even before the team began its season at powerful Louisville (wound up becoming a 79-51 loss), Beamon injured his ankle in practice.
He came back several days later but only to re-injure the ankle Dec. 2 against George Washington. So without one of the nation’s premier scorers, it would be difficult for any team to adjust.
But they were also without Pankey, who was not granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA that would’ve made him immediately eligible to play. He will make his debut next season.
So without two key standouts, Masiello, a second year coach, had to adjust his team’s identity. The Jaspers forged onward and after a loss to defending MAAC Tournament champion Loyola, 51-41, at home on Jan. 25, the Jaspers’ season stood on the brink.
They were 5-14 overall and 3-6 in the MAAC. But if you know anything about the makeup and the very fiber of this team, they were not going to relent or give in. And the Jaspers, through junior center Rhamel Brown’s tenacious interior defense and stout play collectively on defense, they rebounded to win seven of their final 10 conference games.
The Jaspers entered the MAAC Tourney as a No. 6 seed but a potentially dangerous one. So it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen this team play the past month that they find themselves one win away from punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Manhattan (14-17) got down and gritty to defeat Fairfield 60-42 in the semifinals at the MassMutual Center to advance to play New York city rival and fourth-seeded Iona in the championship game. The win over Fairfield — it will be Manhattan’s first title appearance since 2004 — came less than 24 hours after they knocked out Loyola 55-52.
“This team has unbelievable mental fortitude,” Masiello said. “Anything I throw at them or other teams, they find a way. They figure it out and these kids are a special group to coach and they police themselves in life.”
The Jaspers were tested midway through the first half when Brown, the MAAC defensive player of the year, went to the bench for the rest of the half after picking up his second foul. At the time of the foul, Jaspers trailed 10-5 and would balloon to 16-5 with 8:27 left in the first half after Fairfield senior guard Derek Needham’s lay up.
But a coach trusts his instincts and by this time in the season, knows the makeup of his team. Masiello didn’t signal for a timeout.
Within 11 seconds, junior guard Michael Alvarado raced down the court and scored on a lay-in and was also fouled. After his free throw make, the Jaspers scored the game’s next seven points to cut Fairfield’s lead to 16-14.
“I told them we were down 12-2 to this team just eight days ago,” Masiello said. “We’ve been down 17, down 15, down 19. we’ve seen it all.
“These kids know what to do, I believe in them and they could go and play this game without me, they are those type of kids — my job is easy, they do the hard stuff.”
Manhattan took its first lead of the game with 50 seconds left in the first half when Kates drained a corner pocket three-pointer off a beautiful feed by sophomore forward Emmy Andujar, who befuddled the Stags all day with his play — 16 points, five rebounds and three steals.
They gave up the lead for all of 21 seconds in the second half before running away with the game. Led by Andujar and point guard Michael Alvarado, who finished with 12 points and three assists, the Jaspers closed the game out by shooting 26-of-33 from the free throw line. Their defense derailed Fairfield’s three-point attack, they went 0-of-9 from there.
Jaspers got nearly half of their points from Andujar and Alvarado and their aggressive drives to the basket resulted in numerous free throw attempts for the team. Alvarado went 8-of-9 from the line, Roberto Colonette canned five three throws and as a team, they made 22-of-27 in the second half. Andujar in particular got his teammates involved with his aggressive play on his drives to the basket and via pick-and-roll game.
“My coaches are always on me about that,” Andujar said of becoming more aggressive offensively. “It works and I just keep attacking and I didn’t want my teammates to go out losing and our season to end.
“We’ve come this far and we’ve started so bad, our turnaround was so good, I just want to keep going; I love the success we’re having.”
Masiello added the team has played through Andujar, Alvarado and Brown as the season as wore on.
“I think if you watched the last 12 to 13 games of our season, you see Emmy in a lot more pick and rolls,” Masiello said. “It was his idea, he said, ‘coach, put me in more pick and rolls’ — it was that simple. That’s why I love these kids, they give me great feedback. We started to play through Mike, Emmy and Rhemal more.”
For players, there are always learning lessons in a season, particularly young players like Andujar who’s coming into his own as an all-around threat. But its also one for young coaches as well.
“I think I made a lot of mistakes as young coach,” Masiello said. “I put Shane Richards and (Donovan) Kates in some tough situations because they play the same spot as George.
“I should’ve gone through these guys (Emmy and Rhemal) more and played through them. We tweaked some things.”
A few tweaks here and there but what sustained through this run has been their defense. They limited Fairfield’s Needham to four points on 2-of-10 shooting.
“We don’t know if we can score 80 on a given night or 30 on a given night, but what we’re going to do is defend and rebound the basketball,” Masiello said. “We’re going to have a chance to be in every game if we do that. That’s been our identity.”
With that, they are now one win away from a conference tournament title that seemed so far away a month ago.