Crunch Time for the Jaspers

It’s an adage, Steve Masiello has repeated frequently in his six-year tenure as head coach of Manhattan College’s men’s basketball team.

“It’s February, it’s time for Manhattan to be Manhattan,” Masiello said on Saturday after a 68-67 win against the Marist Red Foxes.

The Jaspers, who seem to play their best basketball in February and March, opened up the month right with a stellar defensive performance, holding the Red Foxes to 35 percent shooting from the floor.

“I thought our defensive mentality was there tonight, which we’ve been missing,” Masiello said. “We haven’t seen it since we left it at Niagara.”

Since taking over the head coaching job in 2011, Masiello’s teams have gone 39-23 in the months of February and March, which include three runs to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship Game, and two championship victories.

The Jaspers won two MAAC titles in part because of their elite defense, which pressed opponents all game, causing chaos and turnovers. Against the Red Foxes, Manhattan got back to its defensive roots.

The Jaspers had struggled defensively over the last two weeks, which saw them lose five of their last six games. Over the stretch, Manhattan allowed opponents to score an average of 80.2 points per game. But on Saturday, the Jaspers held the Red Foxes to 67 points.

“It’s taking us some time to figure it out,” Masiello said. “A little longer than I thought, even without [Rich Williams] and with everything going on. But I think they’re learning. … The biggest issue I have with this team right now is there are certain nights I recognize us and there are other nights I’m like what’s going on here? Tonight was a night I recognized us.”

The win against Marist comes at a crucial point for the Jaspers, who headed into the contest in last place in the MAAC standings. The Jaspers now sit in tenth, just a game behind ninth place Niagara, and three games behind Rider and Quinnipiac who sit in seventh and eighth respectively.

“No matter how the win is, it’s a big win confidence-wise how we’ve been playing down the stretch the last two or three games,” Zane Waterman, who scored 22 points, including the game-winner against Marist said. “Close game or blowout it feels good either way.”

But the Jaspers were in danger of dropping the contest Saturday night. After dominating the first half, holding Marist to 30 percent shooting from the field and carrying a 31-22 lead at halftime, the Jaspers came out sluggish in the second half. Marist opened the second half on a 16-5 run to take a 38-36 lead.

Manhattan slowed Marist down a bit and kept it close. But 38 percent shooting in the period kept Manhattan from going on a sustained run.

“Unfortunately we let it be a ball game,” Masiello said. “I’ve got to look at what I’m doing, I’ve got to look at the lineups I’m playing. I have to really evaluate some things.”

After Marist’s Brian Parker hit a free throw with 23 seconds remaining, Manhattan had the ball down 67-65 with a chance to tie or win the game. The Jaspers, who have struggled in late game situations this season, losing three contests in the final seconds, made amends this time, as Waterman buried a triple from the corner to give Manhattan the lead with nine seconds to play.

“[Zavier Turner] was supposed to get a layup, but both my man and his man went with him, so he just kicked it out to me,” Waterman said of the final play.

The Red Foxes had a chance to win the game on the next possession, but Khalid Hart failed to hit the rim on his 3-point attempt, securing a 68-67 win for the Jaspers.

Despite the win, Masiello wants to see his team focus more.

“We’re not there yet from an emotional standpoint, and that’s something we’re going to work on a lot this week,” Masiello said. “Emotional investment into things.”

Waterman had 23 points and Turner scored 12 to lead the Jaspers on the scoring front.

Perhaps the toughest part of the schedule approaches for the Jaspers. Manhattan will host the first place Monmouth Hawks on Friday Feb. 10, then welcome the third place Saint Peter’s Peacocks on Feb. 12. On Feb. 16, the Jaspers travel to Siena, which sits in fourth place.