ALBANY, N.Y.—For months, this column has dedicated itself to highlighting eye-popping statistics and remarkable numbers.
But who are we kidding? The only number that matters this season is two.
For the second year in a row, the Manhattan College Jaspers are the MAAC champions. It was a season of ups and downs, but it culminated in the ultimate high: a MAAC title.
The Jaspers defeated the Iona Gaels 79-69 and will make a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“It feels amazing,” RaShawn Stores said about becoming a two-time champion. “A lot of people don’t see it. The media don’t really see what we go through. Day in and day out, 6 a.m.’s, the navy seal workouts, Emmy Andujar and Carlton Allen losing people. We all lose people every day and we just fight for them. Twenty-two strong, that’s all that matters.”
Two is the number of the year for the Jaspers but for the sake of this column, here are some major highlights from the game.
The Jaspers held the 3-point machine Iona Gaels to a measly 23 percent from the 3-point line.
Just a day after the Gaels set a tournament record with 19 made 3-pointers, the Jaspers’ defense limited them to a woeful 5-22 mark.
“If you take away A and B and make them go to C and D, it’s always going to be rough,” Stores said. “We just knew. Just ball pressure, ball pressure. Keep trying to get to their legs. Keep trying to get to their legs. They’re a jump-shooting team. If you don’t have no legs you can’t really shoot the ball too well.”
For the entire night, it was apparent how much Iona’s missed threes influenced the game. The trio of A.J. English, Isaiah Williams and Schadrac Casimir could never find their rhythm and with their crucial misses from long range, Iona blew huge opportunities several times to build comfortable leads.
In an arena full of lethal 3-point shooters in English, Casimir, Williams, Shane Richards and Stores, absolutely no one would have guessed that the best 3-point shooter of the night would be Donovan Kates.
Kates had been two for his last 22 from downtown, but had the game of his life against Iona, hitting four of his six 3-point attempts.
The senior saved his best scoring output for the most important game of the season, scoring a season-high 13 points.
“Just my teammates having confidence in me,” Kates said about his performance. “The coaching staff, everybody just told me to stay with it and keep shooting. That was just a big thing. Everybody kept confidence in me, so I kept confidence in myself. When you can look around and the guys around you have confidence in you, how can you not have confidence in yourself?”
One serves a double role here.
First, Ashton Pankey was named the number one player of the tournament, earning MAAC Tournament MVP. Second, the Jaspers are number one in the conference once again.
In three tournament games, Pankey averaged 15.6 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, on 52 percent from the field and 77 percent from the free throw line.
“All year I wanted to establish myself as an inside presence,” Pankey said. “I think that was key for us, especially in a game like this.”
Pankey came up huge in the championship game, with a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds. Not on the box score were the double teams he drew every time he touched the ball.
Pankey played the double teams perfectly, kicking it out to the open man on many occasions and either assisting on the play or getting a hockey assist.
He was a big reason why Manhattan is number one for the second year in a row, but was not the only reason.
Throughout the entire weekend, the Jaspers received contributions from several members of the team. One night it was Richards, the next night it was Emmy Andujar. Zane Waterman had a terrific game off the bench in the semifinals scoring 10 points.
The depth of this Jaspers team was in full display in Albany and one can only wonder how far that can take them in the NCAA Tournament.
The Jaspers, who finished with a much better record last season, were a 13 seed in last year’s dance. They will not know their fate until Selection Sunday on March 15, but until then, head coach Steve Masiello is just happy with his latest victory.
“Not at all,” Masiello said about whether or not he has given any thought to where the team might be seeded this season. “We’re just very happy and humble to continue to play basketball this time of the year. We’ll be excited to be a part of it, like anyone. Like we always do. We understand that it’s going to be a tough draw no matter who it is, but we’re just enjoying this now.”