Another game, another nail-biter for the Manhattan Jaspers.
Of the eight games the Jaspers have played in the MAAC this year, six have been decided by six points or less. Sunday’s tilt against Niagara was the latest in the series of close bouts.
The Jaspers defeated the Purple Eagles 69-64 to even up their MAAC record at 4-4, but head coach Steve Masiello knows that the way this season has gone, with all the narrow defeats on buzzer beaters or last second plays, the Jaspers could easily be 6-2 or 7-1. However, Masiello doesn’t view Manhattan’s position as precarious. Instead, it’s an intriguing one.
“I like being where we are,” Masiello said. “What happens is that you just get better and get better. Human nature is that you get a team that’s 4-4 and you’re going to exhale. Monmouth is not sneaking up on anyone. Iona is not sneaking up on anyone. I’m not saying we’re going to sneak up on anyone. … I’ve been doing this long enough to know that eventually you get those. So let’s just hope we get them at the right time.”
Like they did in the previous game against Canisius, the Jaspers came out red-hot from the field against Niagara. The Jaspers knocked down five of their first seven 3-pointers, and notched an assist on their first nine field goals.
The torrid start was good enough for a 23-12 lead, but as was the case against Canisius, the Jaspers let up for a period. The Purple Eagles recorded nine of the next 11 points and cut Manhattan’s lead to four.
However, unlike the last game, the Jaspers relied on their defense this time, forcing nine turnovers in the first half, which helped them maintain their lead against Niagara. The Jaspers fed from their energy on defense, going 7-14 from downtown in the first half, en route to a 39-31 lead at the break.
“It helped to get us out to that early start,” Shane Richards, who had 13 points at halftime said. “But I think that to get stops defensively really helps our offense. The more stops we get, the more momentum we get on offense.”
“Something we’ve been concentrating on is getting off to better starts and we did that against Canisius and then we did that today again,” Masiello said about his team’s first half performance. “Against Canisius though we let them back in. Today I thought we sustained it, really sharing the basketball. … I thought that was the key, our unselfishness.”
The Jaspers cooled down on offense to start the second half, and the defense which had carried them for the first half, began to show some holes. Niagara came back to tie the game at 46 with 12 minutes to play. However, as he had done all game long, Richards answered Niagara’s surge with a 3-pointer, giving the Jaspers the lead 49-46.
With the score 54-51 and the Jaspers in the lead, Calvin Crawford went up for a monster block, pinning one against the glass and converting on the other end on a layup, which stretched the lead to five.
The block turned the tide and gave Manhattan some momentum for the next three minutes, but Niagara managed to stay in the game. With the Jaspers in front 64-61, Emile Blackman threw down a one-handed slam to cut the Jaspers’ lead to one with less than three minutes to play.
Niagara failed to take advantage of a missed shot on the other end by the Jaspers, and Waterman converted on a layup inside to give the Jaspers a three-point lead. Blackman seemed to have had a chance to tie the game on a three-point play, but was called for an offensive foul instead.
The Purple Eagles intentionally fouled Tyler Wilson, who split his free throws and gave Manhattan a 65-61 lead with 29.7 seconds remaining. With a chance to trim the deficit, the Jaspers drew yet another offensive foul, and after RaShawn Stores knocked down a pair of free throws, the Jaspers led by six with 12 seconds to play.
“Zane Waterman made the biggest plays of the game,” Masiello said. “Two big step up charges that helped us.”
Karonn Davis made things interesting, knocking down a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to three, but once again, Stores stepped up to the line after getting intentionally fouled and converted on both attempts to give the Jaspers a 69-64 win.
Richards led the way for the Jaspers with 22 points. Stores was right behind him with 15 points, three assists, and four rebounds.
The Jaspers forced 18 turnovers and gave up only two 3-pointers, a sign of them getting back to their defensive ways.
“This is typical Manhattan basketball,” Stores said of how the Jaspers played against Niagara, “but we could get better. A lot better. Right now we’re going through growing pains. We have to get the younger guys ready and we’ll be fine.”
Manhattan returns to the court on Thursday, when it takes on the first place Monmouth Hawks.