CHRIS CIRILLO & DANIEL YNFANTE
SENIOR WRITER & ASST. SPORTS EDITOR
The parity in this season’s MAAC conference is so great that halfway through the MAAC regular season schedule, the Jaspers entered the day in fifth place with a chance to move up to fourth with a win, but slip in the standings with a loss.
It wasn’t a must win game, but it was as close to a must win as any.
Having dropped the last two contests and playing against a Monmouth team that was tied for first place in the MAAC, the Manhattan Jaspers notched a statement 71-64 victory.
“It doesn’t seem like last year where there was a certain class of teams. I don’t see that this year…,” head coach Steve Masiello said following the win. “We all say that every year, ‘it’s wide open,’ this year it’s really wide open. On any given night, I think anything could happen. The MAAC tournament is going to be a great tournament just because 1-8, 1-9, is pretty even.”
Judging from Manhattan’s first couple of possessions, where Ashton Pankey drew two fouls inside and scored four quick points, it was safe to think that Manhattan’s game plan was to attack the rim.
But the Jaspers quickly abandoned that strategy, not because it wasn’t effective, but because they had something better working for them.
Led by Shane Richards’ three 3-pointers, Manhattan shot an impressive 7-13 from 3-point range in the first half.
“I thought my kids did an outstanding job,” Monmouth head coach King Rice said. “They [Manhattan] made some big time shots…That’s how games go. Today, their guys made them – a lot of them.”
But behind Deon Jones’ 16 first half points, the Monmouth Hawks stayed within striking distance of Manhattan and headed into the locker room down 40-33 despite the seven Manhattan 3-pointers.
The second half started in style for Manhattan, with an alley-oop dunk from Jermaine Lawrence.
However, Monmouth would cut into the Manhattan lead and used an 11-4 run to start the half to tie the game at 44.
For a stretch of eight minutes after the game was tied at 44, the teams exchanged baskets with four being the biggest lead Manhattan held at any point. Tied at 54 and with less than seven minutes remaining, a Justin Robinson floater gave Monmouth only its second lead of the game.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, that was the last lead they held as Pankey completely took over the game for the Jaspers, scoring on eight of the next 11 Jasper points to give Manhattan a 65-60 lead.
With the score in favor of Manhattan 68-64, the Hawks had possession with 25 seconds remaining and a chance to cut Manhattan’s lead.
But Jones missed a layup, Andujar grabbed the rebound, was fouled and converted on two free throws to seal the game for Manhattan. Pankey would later be fouled and hit 1-2 free throws to clinch Manhattan’s 71-64 victory.
“I just thought it was a great team win for us, and I thought we were extremely unselfish,” Masiello said.
Unselfishness was the theme of the day for the Jaspers, who saw all 10 players to get in the game score. The team assisted on 19 of 24 made field goals and connected on a season-high 11 three-pointers.
The leader of the charge however was Pankey, who fell just one point shy of his career high of 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds to go along with two blocks.
“It felt great. School’s back in session, all the students are back,” Pankey said. “You know, we had a really good home crowd today and we really fed off of their energy.”
With the win, Manhattan now improves to 9-10 and 6-4 in the MAAC. The team is now in fourth in the standings and faces a tough schedule next week with a game against Siena and a rematch against Monmouth.
For now, the team is satisfied with just soaking in this latest victory.
“Big time by us,” Pankey said. “We stayed together. Coach Mas [Masiello] talked about how big a game this was for us and the MAAC is pretty much wide open so it’s a really big time win for us.”