This week, Manhattan will compete for its fourth ever MAAC Championship. It’s been 10 years since its last MAAC Championship. It’s been 10 years since its last NCAA Tournament. And it’s been 10 years since the Manhattan Jaspers shocked the world.
If this year’s team needs any extra motivation or belief, they need to look no further than what happened 10 years ago.
On March 14, 2004, just a few days after Manhattan had beaten Niagara to win its second consecutive MAAC Championship, the Jaspers sat in the ESPN Zone in New York City watching Selection Sunday waiting to see where they would be seeded in the NCAA Tournament.
Being in the tournament wasn’t special to them anymore. They needed to win.
In 2003, No. 14 Manhattan was paired with No. 3 Syracuse and All-American Carmelo Anthony. The Jaspers kept the Orangemen in check for most of the game, however, Syracuse pulled away and won 76-65. Syracuse went on the win the National Championship that year.
But as the Jaspers sat in the ESPN Zone on that Sunday, the TV finally showed that Manhattan would be a 12 seed and they would take on Florida, a five seed.
Manhattan was insulted.
“You could have put Duke in front of us that first game,” said Dave Holmes, the starting forward for the 2004 team. “We were going to beat them because we felt as though we had something to prove.”
The Gators were ranked No.1 at one point in the season and they had one of the best forwards in the country in David Lee, who now starts for the Golden State Warriors.
It was a tough time for New York sports. The Knicks were 31-37, St. John’s finished 6-21, Fordham finished 6-22 and even the Giants 4-14, and the Jets 6-10, had no success.
But on March 18, 2004, none of that mattered.
While the Jaspers were getting ready in the locker room, Coach Bobby Gonzalez presented the team with a surprise: a letter from New York City Mayor and Manhattan College alum Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani congratulated the Jaspers and told them that New York City was behind them.
“That sealed Florida’s fate right there,” Holmes said. “That just confirmed it that we were going to go out and represent for the city of New York.”
The letter may have worked too well.
“We were out in the layup lines getting so hyped that the refs were like ‘you guys need to turn it down,’” said Luis Flores, the starting point guard and Manhattan’s all-time leading scorer.
Florida boasted a tall front line that consisted of the 6-foot-9-inch Lee and Adrian Moss. Manhattan’s tallest player was Holmes at just 6 feet 7 inches. But that didn’t seem to matter either.
“You could just see Florida’s players were just bigger, stronger and looked tougher and man, I thought Manhattan was in for a tough day,” said Viv Bernstein, a writer for The New York Times who covered the Manhattan-Florida matchup. “What do I know, right?”
The Gators came out with a 10-9 lead in the first seven minutes of the game, and then they didn’t see a lead until next season. Flores scored 26 points, Holmes had 12 points and 12 rebounds and Lee only scored seven points for the Gators. For the third time in school history, the Jaspers won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
The Jaspers bullied the big brother and won 75-60.
“We were mad we didn’t win by more,” Flores said. “We weren’t cocky, we were confident.”
After the game, the team went back and turned on ESPN and watched themselves as their win was the lead story. Their phones vibrated all night with text messages and phone calls, and everyone wanted to be a part of the madness.
The Jaspers enjoyed it for a little, and then they had to prepare for Chris Paul and No. 4 Wake Forest.
Manhattan played with Wake Forest throughout the whole game. Manhattan trailed by two with one minute and 30 seconds left to play before a Paul layup sealed it. Paul finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals. The Demon Deacons snuck away and won 84-80.
In 2003, the Jaspers were eliminated by Anthony, now a nine-time NBA all-star. In 2004, they were eliminated by Paul, now a seven-time NBA all-star. Who knows what could have happened if they got matched up with someone else.
This year’s Manhattan team – the most talented team since 2004 – will travel to Massachusetts hoping to emulate what happened 10 years ago. They certainly have the talent. They certainly have the coaching.
“We’re very different than that team,” Manhattan’s current Head Coach Steve Masiello said, who was an assistant coach under Gonzalez in 2004. “But we’re just as dangerous as that team.”