by PETE JANNY, Sports & Managing Editor
The new year has brought new opportunity for a Manhattan College women’s basketball program (4-7, 1-1 MAAC) that is hoping to make some noise this coming March at the MAAC tournament in Atlantic City. Having lost the last two years in the quarterfinals of the tournament, Manhattan hopes to prove that their pre-season projection of fourth this year was not a fluke.
Until March arrives, however, Manhattan will have their work cut out for them trying to navigate the annual rigors of the MAAC season. This season will also be different from past ones with the new schedule featuring 20 MAAC games rather than the customary amount of 18.
On Thursday night, Manhattan did not look like a team on a two-game losing streak as the team rolled to a resounding 68-50 win over Canisius (1-9, 0-1 MAAC). After trailing by as much as 10 in the first half, Manhattan clawed their way back to tie the game at the half before distancing themselves from the Golden Griffins in the second half. Manhattan’s biggest names delivered spirited performances with star freshman Emily LaPointe scoring a career-high 25 points to lead the charge on offense. LaPointe’s big night seemed like it was destined to happen sooner than later as the Staten Island Native entered the game averaging a team-high 10.3 points-per-game. Her aggressiveness in this game was infectious as sophomores Courtney Warley and Sydney Watkins also scored in double figures to help put away the Golden Griffins.
A lackluster opening to this game for Manhattan put them behind 15-9 at the end of the first quarter. After a steal and a fast break layup from senior Gabby Cajou gave Manhattan a 9-7 lead with 4:46 left in the first quarter, Canisius ended the quarter on an 8-0 run that positioned the visitors with a surprising advantage heading into the second quarter. For the quarter, Manhattan shot just 19 percent (4-for-21) from the field and 11 percent (1-for-9) from three-point range to put themselves behind the eight ball.
The Canisius lead was quickly cut to three at 15-12 thanks to a three from sophomore Sydney Watkins in the opening minute of the second quarter.
If not for Watkins’s early offensive success, Manhattan would’ve been down by even more early in this game. That three pointer upped her point total to eight after contributing five points in the first quarter. Watkins ended up finishing with 16 points with four threes to her name. Head coach Heather Vulin reiterated the confidence she has in Watkins after the game.
“If her feet are set, she always has the green light to shoot it,” Vulin said of Watkins. “It’s really nice to have a weapon like her on the team.”
The mood in Draddy was noticeably gloomy after the Golden Griffins increased their lead to 10 at 22-12 after D’Jhai Patterson-Ricks converted three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt. A silly foul like that from Manhattan summed up the team’s disappointing start to the game.
At this point, Manhattan had no choice but to wake up. This is when LaPointe found her stride.
After four quick points from Warley cut the Manhattan deficit to 24-16 with 7:15 left in the first half, LaPointe erupted with a personal 10-0 run, including 11 of Manhattan’s next 13 points, that helped give Manhattan a 29-24 lead before the Golden Griffins could even blink.
LaPointe did the damage in different ways, whether by attacking the rim or by finding space to get off good looks from mid range and beyond the arc. All of it was made possible by the freshman’s gritty defensive play as she tallied two steals during this stretch. No play better epitomized LaPointe’s team-first attitude than when a steal from her led to an automatic two points on the other end for Cajou that made the Manhattan lead 28-24.
“I’ve been excited for this season for two or three years because she committed early,” Vulin said of the excitement that LaPointe that has infused into the program. “Everything she’s doing for us now I knew she was capable of doing from day one so I’m just really happy about her success.”
By the time LaPointe added her 13th and final point of the half from the free throw line at 5:03, Manhattan’s 15-0 run was completed and the entire nature of the game was changed. Canisius would respond with a layup from Shannon Conely at 4:32 that reduced the Manhattan lead to 29-26 and ended a scoring drought for the visitors that lasted three minutes.
After all this, Canisius was able to take one last lead at 31-29 with 1:51 left in the second quarter thanks to a jumper from Patterson-Ricks.
Halftime came with the game tied at 33. Stout defensive play from Manhattan helped the team survive a poor shooting half. Having shot 33 percent from the field (12-for-36) and 19 percent from three (3-for-16), Manhattan made up for it with eight steals. Manhattan’s ability to get steals was mainly why 12 of the team’s 33 points came off the fast break.
Manhattan’s success in the first half could essentially be attributed to four players: LaPointe, Warley, Cajou, and Watkins. Those four players were the only Jaspers to score in the first half and they accounted for a combined five of Manhattan’s eight steals in the half to help set a strong defensive tone.
Manhattan’s heavy reliance on only a few players was not something concerning for Vulin. She believed that the overwhelming involvement of players like LaPointe and Warley was merely a natural consequence of this particular game.
“There are a few kids on the team that are very talented in scoring. I’m fine if they had big games tonight and other games it’s going to be even more balanced in scoring than it was tonight. Those who did make shots just took advantage of the opportunities given to them,” Vulin said of Manhattan’s performance in which four players accounted for 64 of the team’s 68 points.
Four of Manhattan’s seven three-point field goals on the game came over the course of the opening four minutes of the third quarter that helped create some separation between the two teams. Two of the three-point bombs came from sharpshooter Sydney Watkins, while LaPointe and Cajou each contributed one. Despite recognizing the three-point shots in the first half weren’t falling, Vulin continued to encourage her team to be aggressive from downtown when opportunities presented themselves.
“We have a few kids on the team that if their feet are set, then bombs away. They have a complete green light,” Vulin said.
Both teams were far more effective shooting in the third quarter with the Jaspers becoming particularly lethal with their shots. Manhattan shot 55.5 percent (10-for-18) in the third quarter on their way to securing a 57-44 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Just the fact that the team looked more relaxed and in sync in the second half compared to the first was another reason why the shots started falling in the second half, according to Vulin.
“In the first half we weren’t in a flow whereas in the second half the passing, the rhythm, the flow were so much better,” Vulin said of her team’s second-half improvement. “It started in the second quarter but the third and fourth quarter is where we showed what we are really capable of doing.”
After struggling to assert herself at the outset, Warley’s exponential improvement as the game went along was highlighted by a strong third quarter in which she notched six of Manhattan’s 24 points in the quarter to help Manhattan secure some breathing room. She finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and three steals in a typical impactful game for her.
What stands out to Vulin the most about Warley is the way she makes the team better besides just scoring.
“The thing about Courtney is she’s one of the most consistent kids I’ve ever coached and sometimes the shots aren’t falling but when it comes to her doing anything she can to help the team win, she’s consistently doing that,” Vulin said.
Manhattan would cruise to victory over the last ten minutes, with the lead growing to as big as 21 after a basket from senior Tuuli Menna with 2:09 remaining in regulation.
LaPointe capped off her magical night with seven fourth-quarter points that ballooned her total to 25, a new career high. Not only did LaPointe do everything right on the court, she also said all the right things off of it.
“Definitely going into conference play I knew there was a level of seriousness that needed to be added. I just wanted to perform the best that I can for my teammates and coach really instilled that confidence from the beginning so I just wanted to go out there and make them proud,” LaPointe said.
Although she’s happy about how much she’s achieved in such a short period of time, LaPointe knows there’s room for improvement in her game. For LaPointe, defense is the area that she wants to perfect. She showed just how much progress she has made in that regard, finishing with a team-high four steals out of a season-high 14 steals for Manhattan.
“Defense is something from the beginning I’ve been pushed to be better at,” LaPointe said. “Coming in as a freshman it’s a new style of play and coach has really pushed me to be my best so honestly everything I accomplished tonight is all credit to my team and my coach for just pushing me to do better.”
Manhattan could use some more of LaPointe’s heroics when they host the Niagara Purple Eagles (2-8, 0-1 MAAC) on Saturday, January 4th. Tip-off is slated for 2 PM as the Jaspers will look to string together consecutive wins for the first time this season.