Photo courtesy of Manhattan College Athletics.
By David Cordova
The New Year is now here and it is time for conference play. Gone are the non-conference games in which teams played against teams from other conferences. Now, it is time for teams to play their foes and for rivalries to commence.
If there has been a tough schedule for any team, it has been the Manhattan Jaspers. After winning their first two games by close margins against St. Francis (NY) and Harvard in mid-November, they went on a four-game losing streak for the rest of the month until a road victory against Holy Cross on December 1st as part of a tournament in Belfast, Ireland.
For the rest of the way, the Jaspers went 3-3 throughout the rest of the month with wins against Morgan State and Hofstra and losses to Tulsa and Seton Hall, the No. 23 team in the country.
On Saturday night, they squared off at Draddy Gymnasium for their first conference matchup of the season against a really good Fairfield team. After their battle-tested non-conference schedule, Manhattan was ready to battle it out in the MAAC, being that they were projected as the No. 2 team in the conference’s preseason poll.
Manhattan 61, Fairfield 58
Due to the fact the college students were on an end-of-semester break, many would expect that there would be a light crowd. But in fact, it was the opposite. Fans and supporters of both programs were on hand to witness a good matchup.
“Really good. We have the best fans,” said Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello. “I say that, because it’s December 30th and it’s snowing and look at the crowd we had on winter break. I thought it was the best crowd we’ve had over the break and I think it was a difference down the stretch.”
Early on in the game, it was a close battle in the post between both teams as Manhattan junior Pauly Paulicap (16 points and nine rebounds) and Fairfield junior forward Jonathan Kasibabu (14 points and 13 rebounds) helped keep the lead close with their solid play.
Senior forward Zane Waterman (12 points) helped bring the Jaspers to a six-point lead, 14-8, with 10:11 left to go in the first half. But then moments later, free throws by senior guard Tyler Nelson (15 points) and a three-pointer by senior guard Jerome Segura (3 points) tied the game for the Stags at 16-16, with 8:47 to go.
Later on in the first half, the Stags had control of the game after sophomore guard Ferron Flavors Jr. (9 points) hit a three to give them a 30-26 lead with 30 seconds left, which would eventually be the lead at the half.
Both teams shot 33% from three-point range in the first half. Manhattan edged out Fairfield in field goal percentage with 42% to 41%. However, the Stags shot just 10% higher (67%) from the free-throw line than the Jaspers (57%).
“Offensively, we got a little into one-on-one play in the first half and I thought that hurt us a little.” said Masiello. “I thought in the second half we did a better job of moving the basketball. I think we only had four assists in the first half, but we shot a better percentage.”
In the second half, the Stags started out strong with the lead, as they were up six, 34-28, with 18:39 to go after a layup by junior forward Matija Milin. But then Manhattan senior forward Calvin Crawford (8 points) scored five straight points and helped them retake a one-point lead, 35-34. Then baskets by Waterman and senior guard Rich Williams (8 points) boosted the Jaspers’ lead to six, 40-34, with 14:30 to go.
But the Stags would not go down so fast as they kept the game close. The Jaspers’ biggest lead was seven, when they led 56-49, with 3:55 to go after a three-pointer by Crawford. But then Fairfield would continue to stay close, with Nelson and Kasibabu hitting clutch free throws to get them within one point, with less than a minute left.
The Jaspers countered with free throws by Williams and senior guard Zavier Turner (11 points), the latter with 15 seconds left and Manhattan leading 61-58. Nelson tried to get one final shot off and missed, which sent Manhattan into the New Year with their first conference win of the season and 6-7 overall.
“It’s understanding your defense is going to win the game. We were flat tonight, we’ve come off breaks and played well. We won, but it wasn’t a great energy effort from us, for whatever reason.” said Masiello, “But our defense won the game. And a big part of that was this guy [Paulicap] and this guy [Williams].”
Right now, the Jaspers are every bit as tough as their preseason ranking proclaimed, but at the end of the day, numbers don’t matter, results do. It won’t be easy in the MAAC, but as long as Manhattan prevails tough, there’s no doubt that they will be dangerous within the next month.