Prior to the season starting, Manhattan College against Siena College was circled on many calendars as potentially one of the best MAAC regular season games of 2014-’15.
It would be the first meeting of the season between the two teams voted as the second and third place teams in the MAAC Preseason Poll.
Although it is up for debate whether the game will go down as one of the best of the regular season, it certainly came close. As Manhattan came away with a hard-fought 87-79 win and improved to 10-10 and 7-4 in the MAAC.
For Jaspers head coach Steve Masiello, the win continues to put his team on track to playing its best basketball come tournament time in March.
“We have no problem not being champions in January and February,” Masiello said. “It’s not what it’s about for us. It’s not about bracketologies. It’s not about who’s picking what. That’s never won me one game. Not got any of us a trophy. Not got any of us an NCAA at large bid. What will determine that is in March.”
The first half was played at a back and forth pace producing 84 points combined.
The Siena Saints got out to a quick 10-4 lead thanks to three Manhattan turnovers, but the Jaspers slowly cut into the lead behind lethal three-point shooting.
The Jaspers shot 6-11 from long range in the first half and their three-point shooting barrage was best on display when up 20-18. Rich Williams and Shane Richards hit three three-pointers in a row to stretch the lead to 29-22.
Williams, coming off the bench for the second consecutive game, connected on two of the three three-pointers during the stretch and led all scorers at halftime with 13 points.
“He came to me a week ago and said, ‘Coach, I think we’re a little flat when we go to the bench. What do you think about me coming off the bench and trying to get some life and spark to us,” Masiello said. “I think that says a lot about his character that he wants to do what’s best for the team.”
Two fouls just six minutes into the game from Ashton Pankey forced him to take a seat on the bench and the Saints took advantage of Manhattan’s lack of size – out rebounding the Jaspers 18-12 in the first half.
The Saints held the Jaspers to one shot nearly every time out and used this to get back into the game, and head into the half down 43-41.
Manhattan got out of the gate quickly in the second half, scoring five consecutive points, but the Saints quieted the storm and cut into Manhattan’s lead.
The game would be played back and forth with the teams exchanging baskets and even leads at several points.
The Saints took their first lead since being up 20-18 when Lavon Long connected on a three-pointer that gave them a 56-55 lead. However, Richards responded on the other end with a three of his own and the Jaspers regained the lead at 58-56.
Siena once again regained the lead at 59-58 thanks to a layup from Long, but that would be the last lead it would hold. Manhattan responded with a 9-2 run to go up 67-61.
From there the Saints managed to stay close, eventually getting to within two points at 81-79 after two made free throws from Long.
On the ensuing possession, Donovan Kates was fouled and split his free throws, which meant Siena would have a chance to tie the game or take the lead. However, with 1:29 left in the game Evan Hymes had his layup blocked by Pankey and the game became a free throw fest from that point on.
Emmy Andujar would knock down four free throws and Richards would add one to seal the deal for the Jaspers at 87-79.
“I like our perseverance,” Williams said after the game. “I thought we battled and I thought a lot of things weren’t going well as a team—like in huddles—but I like how we stuck together and pulled it out.”
Five players scored in double figures for the Jaspers. Andujar led the way with 20 points, five assists, four steals and four rebounds. Richards trailed him with 14 points and two steals. Pankey had 13 points and six rebounds. Williams scored 13 all in the first half and Stores had 10 to go along with four assists and two steals.
“I think we’re more dangerous offensively,” Masiello said. “Last year, I don’t think we could have got five guys in double figures. I don’t think we would have put up 18 assists on 25 field goals. We weren’t that type of team. This year’s team has great offensive firepower.”
“You have seven guys that can go get you 20 on a given night, that’s the difference and that’s why I’m really impressed with this team. If they could get the other side of the basketball, which for the last three years we’ve gotten, I like us.”
The Jaspers return to action on Sunday against Monmouth, and a win against the Hawks would put the Jaspers in third place in the MAAC.
For now Masiello is not worried about the standings. He continues to reiterate what he has said all season long. All that matters is how the team is playing in March.
“We know where we need to be come March,” Masiello said. “We will be there. We will do what we need to do to be where we need to be.”