by PETE JANNY, Asst. Sports Editor
FIRST ROUND WBB: MAN 62, SPU 41
QUARTERFINALS WBB: MAN 51, MAR 65
Head coach Heather Vulin’s troops arrived in Albany for the 2019 MAAC Championships already a success story before even tipping off against the Saint Peter’s Peacocks (6-24, 1-16 MAAC) at the Times Union Center last Thursday afternoon. Inexperience, injury adversity, and out of conference struggles would’ve been a recipe for disaster for most teams, but not the 2019 Manhattan College women’s basketball team (12-19, 9-9 MAAC).
Led by the 2018-2019 MAAC defensive player of the year Courtney Warley, the Jaspers refused to bow out of the MAAC race despite losing key cogs D’yona Davis, Candela Abejon, and Gabby Cajou to season-ending ACL injuries. With a no excuse attitude, Vulin found a way to make the best use of her extraordinarily young team comprised of three freshman, five sophomores, five juniors and one graduate transfer.
The showcase of skills that were regularly on display these past few months in Draddy Gymnasium belied the inexperience of those who possessed them. Unbothered by the lofty expectations, budding guards Sydney Watkins, Kania Pollock and Lynette Taitt joined Warley in helping their team substitute the negativity of injury adversity with optimism for the future.
After a 2-9 body of work leading up to conference play, the Jaspers compiled a solid 9-9 record against MAAC competition to end the season in a three way tie for fourth-place with Monmouth and Canisius. Moreover, a season-ending stretch of four wins in five games typified the constant growth of Manhattan.
After coming away victorious in the first two meetings between both schools, Manhattan’s season came down to whether or not they would be able to complete the season series sweep of Saint Peter’s. The No. 11 seeded Peacocks entered tournament play with only one regular season conference win which came against Fairfield on Jan. 15.
The Jaspers opened the game on a 7-0 run powered by a Pollock lay-up, a Watkins three pointer, and a Pamela Miceus jump shot. The Peacocks quelled Manhattan’s run when Wil’lisha Jackson drilled a jump shot at the 7:04 mark of the first quarter to make the score 7-2. Miceus then retaliated with another mid-range jumper before Jackson added three more points to her name by virtue of a free throw and a jump shot.
Despite Manhattan’s seven-point cushion at the outset of the quarter, the Peacocks played the Jaspers tough in the opening ten minutes of action to get to within three at 15-12 at the conclusion of the quarter. Miceus was brilliant pouring in eight points to help give her team an early lead.
“Just back in December Pam was a walk-on for me,” said Vulin about Miceus. “Today she was five for five from the floor.”
The second quarter was entirely dictated by Manhattan.
The Jaspers opened the second quarter on a 16-2 run that was fueled in large part by eight points from Warley. Saint Peter’s first points in the quarter came at the 2:49 mark when Cinnamon Dockery hit two free throws to make the score 31-14 in favor of Manhattan. The Jaspers would head into the halftime break with a commanding 34-19 lead. Vulin believed her team’s biggest advantage over Saint Peter’s lied in the talent of her team’s bigs.
“Courtney, Julie, and Pam have really been aggressive and been executing what we are trying to do,” said Vulin of the productivity of her bigs. “We thought we had a mismatch with in the paint and I thought we really took advantage of it.”
The third quarter was more evenly matched with the Jaspers outscoring the Peacocks 18-4. Taitt and Warley stayed active dropping five and four points respectively in the third quarter to keep the Jaspers in control of the game. The biggest highlight of the quarter came in the form of a Sini Makela triple with five seconds left to extend give Manhattan an insurmountable 52-33 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Vulin raved about the consistency of Taitt, who she believes is one of the more underrated players in the MAAC.
“I think Lynette Taitt has been outstanding,” said Vulin. “ Not a lot of people have been talking about her but I think she is an All-MAAC caliber player.”
The Jaspers cruised the way of the way en route to posting an impressive 62-41 win over the lowly Peacocks. In a postgame interview, Taitt cited her team’s defensive mindset for why they have been able to be competitive in MAAC play.
“Defense is our offense,” said Taitt. “As long as we see teams under a certain amount of points and follow along with our game plan then we are gonna win.”
Manhattan now turned their attention to the Marist Red Foxes (22-9, 13-5 MAAC) led by All-MAAC first team selection Alana Gilmer. After an off day Friday, Manhattan and Marist tipped off at noon on Saturday for what was the third match-up of the season between both teams. The previous two meetings were won by the visiting team with Manhattan having won by eighteen in Poughkeepsie on Jan. 27, while the Red Foxes came away with an eleven-point victory in Draddy on Feb. 7.
This third episode represented the most pivotal meeting of them all with a ticket to the semi-finals of the MAAC Championships on the line. In the end, the experience and scoring talent of Marist powered the Red Foxes to a 65-51 win over Manhattan.
Warley put her team on the board first with a layup at the 9:19 mark to hand the Jaspers an early 2-0 lead. Unfortunately for Manhattan, Gilmer was a force to be reckon with right from the get-go. The Virginia Tech transfer unleashed a scoring rampage that saw her score the first 14 points for her flank.
Despite Gilmer’s scoring prowess, Manhattan stuck around fueled by the scoring contributions of five different players. By the time Gilmer dropped her final basket of the quarter at the 2:44 mark, Marist held a marginal 14-12 advantage. The Red Foxes would stretch their lead to five at 19-14 by the end of the first quarter.
Vulin’s tenure as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech gave her the chance to develop a relationship with Gilmer.
“It’s one of those situations where it hurts that she did it because I love that kid,” said Vulin on her former player. “I’m happy for her success at Marist.”
The Jaspers failed to make up any ground on the Red Foxes when they lost the second quarter by a score of 13-18. Taitt poured in four points in the quarter to lead Manhattan while Sarah Barcello and Grace Vander Weide added four apiece for the Red Foxes. Marist constructed their 10-point halftime lead by way of a 44.8 percent clip (13-for-29) from the field. On the flip side, Manhattan’s 31.3 shooting percentage (10-for-32) was not doing the job.
Marist started the second half off with a quick 6-0 run that stretched their lead to 16 points, which represented the largest lead of the game up to that point. After trading baskets for the next three minutes, Marist pushed their lead to 17 by way of a mid-range jumper from Gilmer at the 2:50 mark.
“She kept making contested shots all game,” said Vulin of Gilmer.
Manhattan’s 18-17 scoring edge in the fourth quarter ended up being an afterthought with Marist cruising the rest of the way. Marist’s decisive win punched their ticket for a date with Rider in the semi-finals and marked the second straight year in which they ended Manhattan’s season in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Championships.
Gilmer finished with 25 points and 5 rebounds to lead the charge for the Red Foxes. For Manhattan, Warley posted a double-double finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds while Taitt led the way in scoring finishing with 14 points to go along with her seven rebounds.
Vulin believes that the experience and maturity of the Red Foxes was the chief determinant of the final outcome.
“The experience and maturity by Marist in terms of what they wanted to accomplish was better than what we wanted to accomplish,” said Vulin.
The end of the Manhattan’s season also ended what was a magical sophomore campaign for Courtney Warley. After being named to the MAAC All-Rookie team a year ago, the Pennsylvania native received 2019 All-MAAC Third Team honors and took home the prestigious MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Award. When speaking on the subject, Warley acknowledged how instrumental her teammates were in helping her receive these individual honors.
“I was really happy that I was able to bring the Defensive Player of the Year Award back to my team because every individual award is a team award,” said Warley.
Looking forward to next season, Warley has high hopes that her battle-tested team will come back stronger.
“I think because we had such a young team this year everybody had to take an older role,” said Warley. “Getting the experience we did this year will definitely help us next year.”
Vulin had nothing but kind things to say about Warley, as both as player and a student.
“Courtney is special to me,” said Warley. “She might be one of those kids who is a once in a lifetime player for me. She’s also a double major so she’s not just a great player but also a great student.”
This injury-ladened season not only tested the mental toughness of the players, but also tested Vulin’s ability to manage a group full of unproven players. Upon reflecting on her team’s journey, Vulin became emotional.
“I’m just incredibly proud of them,” said Vulin. “If I was going to treat them all like young kids then we would not have won a game at all this year.”
Looking ahead, Vulin is confident that the lessons learned this season will help her team have more success next year.
“I think the future is very bright for our program,” said Vulin. “Our mindset is to be playing on Monday next year.”