Very few games are labeled as must win, but if there was any that came close, it was Manhattan’s afternoon tilt with Fairfield.
Coming off two excruciating defeats in a row, one to Rider in overtime and another one to arch-rival Iona, Manhattan needed a win not only for confidence sake, but to get back on track in the standings.
The Jaspers did just that against the Stags, with a 79-70 victory.
Head coach Steve Masiello knows that the season is starting to wind down and every win his team can get is of utter importance.
“Yea, I mean it’s big,” Masiello said. “This is crunch time, and look, you lose an overtime game then you lose a 3-point game at home to a terrific Iona team. You know, if there is a must-win game, this was it.”
The win puts the Jaspers back on track in the standings—fourth place and just half a game behind third—in a year where a single win in the MAAC can catapult a team in the standings and a loss can have it slip.
The final score of 79-70 did not do Manhattan’s performance justice. Although the first half was tightly contested—the 4-12 Stags headed into halftime tied with Manhattan at 33—the second half was a completely different story.
“I was really worried about this game coming into the weekend,” Masiello said. “Despite their record, they are a terrific team…”
It seemed as if Masiello’s worries would turn into reality for the first 26 minutes of the game, as the Jaspers only led 46-42.
But that was the closest Fairfield would get, as Shane Richards caught fire in the second half and exploded for 20 points.
“I had those three fouls pretty quickly so I didn’t really get a chance to get a rhythm going, and in the second half I think I hit the first one and I kind of just kept rolling from there,” Richards said.
Richards’ four 3-pointers in the second half, along with Manhattan’s ratcheted intensity on defense, proved too much to handle for the Stags.
Emmy Andujar, who led the team with 22 points, was a key ball hawk in the second half, recording all three of his steals in the period.
“Just learning from our past games,” Andujar said about the team’s defensive pressure in the second half. “We usually come out, teams ready to punch us in our face and we got bad outcomes from those past games we have had. So we knew what we had to do, so we went out there and set the tone.”
The Jaspers forced Fairfield to turn the ball over 20 times, 11 of which came in the second half, and 15 of which came via steals.
The 15 steals mark the most steals Manhattan has had in a game since Dec.21, 2013, against Buffalo.
“We’re not last year’s team,” Masiello said. “We’re not a team that’s a field goal percentage defense, where we keep you at 40 or 39. This is a we’re going to turn you over and get more possessions and then we have to do something with those possessions. Tonight, we did.”
Manhattan heads out on the road for its next three games, three games that can make a difference in a MAAC conference that has been tight all year.
The daunting schedule that awaits Manhattan—on the road to Siena, Marist and Iona, and at home to Quinnipiac—made this game that much more important to secure.
“We needed the win,” Masiello said. “The guys knew it and again, you know I think it says so much about a team to come in, this is a day you normally come in, you’re flat, you don’t have great urgency, you’re relaxed, take your foot off the pedal, but we didn’t do that.”