by PETE JANNY, Sports & Managing Editor
The Manhattan Jaspers (6-6, 2-0 MAAC) looked to extend their winning streak to a season-high three games when the team traveled to Fairfield (6-9, 2-2 MAAC) to take on the Stags on Friday night.
Coming off two big road wins in Buffalo, Manhattan seemed to be ascending to new heights as a team. The team’s sweep in Buffalo marked only the third time in program history that Manhattan had beaten both Niagara and Canisius on the road in the same season, including the first time since the 2003-2004 season when Manhattan won the MAAC Championship.
This matchup with the Stags came at a trying time for Fairfield. Two nights earlier, Fairfield lost 70-58 at home to a Marist team who entered the game with a troubling 1-11 record. The loss dropped Fairfield to 1-2 in MAAC play and represented a low point in their season.
On this night, it was not meant to be for Manhattan as the Jaspers came out flat en route to a 68-60 loss at Alumni Hall. Manhattan never had control of this game, digging themselves in a 16-2 hole right out of the gate. Although the Jaspers did manage to get three back four times in the second half, they just couldn’t completely stop Fairfield when they needed to the most. A few timely baskets for Fairfield over the closing minutes sealed the Manhattan loss in a game that they never led in.
The Stags were clearly the more prepared team out of the gate. After a basket from senior Pauly Paulicap cut the Manhattan deficit to 5-2, the Stags engineered a furious 11-0 run over nearly a three-minute stretch to put themselves in the driver’s seat up 16-2.
Fairfield’s fast start was sparked by the amazing play of senior Landon Taliaferro.
Taliaferro had three three-pointers to his name by the time five minutes had elapsed. His third three at 15:08 capped off the 11-0 run and sent a message to a Manhattan team struggling for answers.
When trying to make sense of Taliaferro and Fairfield’s success early in this game, head coach Steve Masiello asserted his team was not organized on defense the way they typically are.
“We weren’t matched up properly in our zone assignments and we didn’t do things that we are capable of doing,” Masiello said. “Guys have to be ready to step up and we just weren’t ready in certain situations.”
While Manhattan allowed Taliaferro to go wild on one end, they couldn’t buy a shot for themselves on the other.
After opening the game 1-for-7 from the field, Manhattan started to settle down a bit as they responded with a 6-2 run. By the time sophomore Christian Hinckson converted a jump shot at 12:35, the Manhattan deficit was 18-8.
Manhattan’s comeback effort was fueled by the play of sophomore Warren Williams.
Williams had his way down low with the Stags throughout the first half. His hook shot at the 8:30 mark of the first half moved the deficit to single digits at 23-15 and gave Manhattan some newfound hope. According to Williams, “coach is always stressing to the feed bigs,” alluding to himself and Paulicap. Fortunately for Manhattan, Williams made the most of the times he was fed down low in this game as he finished with a season-high 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
As the first half wore on, Taliaferro’s heroics continued.
The senior sharpshooter nailed his fourth three of the night at 7:26 that put Fairfield back up by 11. Taliaferro would cap off his 22-point half with a mid-range jumper at 4:18 that made the score 36-26 in favor of the Stags.
Despite the show Taliaferro was putting on, Manhattan refused to quit.
Back-to-back baskets from Williams and sophomore Elijah Buchanan brought the deficit to six at 36-30 with 1:50 left in the first half. Less than a minute later, Williams finished down low again to keep the Jaspers within striking distance down 38-32.
Manhattan entered the break down 40-32 in a half that saw the Jaspers shoot 46.4 percent (13-for-28) from the field. The Jaspers were doing themselves little favor behind the arc as evidenced by their 2-for-9 showing from deep over the first 20 minutes. In addition, the Jaspers were being victimized by the regularity in which the Stags were getting to the free-throw line. Fairfield made 15 of 18 attempted free throws in the first half, which was a far cry from Manhattan’s four attempts. If not for Williams, Manhattan would’ve almost certainly been down by double digits at the break.
Out of the break, it was a little more of the same for Manhattan.
The focus wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be as the Stags started to break down Manhattan’s defense with cuts to the hoop for layups. Fairfield rattled off six straight points, with four of them coming down inside, to create some significant separation at 46-32.
Manhattan fought back with eight straight of their own by virtue of five straight points for Williams and a three from senior Tyler Reynolds that cut the deficit to 46-40 with 15:09 left. Fairfield’s Jesus Cruz would answer with two straight baskets that stretched the lead back up to ten.
When a layup from Paulicap at 10:15 helped Manhattan shave the deficit to three for the first time at 50-47, there was once again real hope for Manhattan. But Paulicap, who only played 12 minutes due to foul trouble, picked up his fourth foul moments later and was forced to take a seat for a good chunk of crunch time. Paulicap’s limited playing time hurt Manhattan considering he was remarkably efficient during his minutes. He finished with seven points on 3-of-4 shooting.
When Manhattan needed stops over the final ten minutes of play, they couldn’t get them. The Jaspers would get as close as three back two more times, with the last time coming off an acrobatic shot in the paint off one leg from Hinckson that cut the Fairfield lead to 56-53 with 5:19 left.
A long three-pointer from Aidas Kavaliauskas with 3:34 left as the shot clock expired increased the Fairfield lead to 61-53 and proved to be a devastating blow to Manhattan’s chances.
Taliaferro paced Fairfield with 24 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three, with 22 of his points coming in the first half. Kavaliauskas left his imprint on this game, finishing with 12 points and six assists. Interestingly enough, the Stags registered twelve less shots than Manhattan, but still finished the night a respectable 48.7 percent (19-for-39) from the field, including 6-for-8 from three. Fairfield added 24 points from the line on 32 attempts.
Manhattan did a nice job shutting down Taliaferro after his electric first half. He only scored two points in the second half, which is a testament to Manhattan’s increased focus on the defensive end in the second half.
“We didn’t respond well early to adversity, but as the game went on I thought we dug in and did some good things,” Masiello said about his team’s second-half improvement.
In addition to Williams’s 19 points, Hinckson finished second in scoring with 13 points, with nine of them coming in the second half. No other Jaspers finished in double digits. Despite Manhattan’s disappointing first half, they still managed to shoot a solid 45.1 percent (23-of-51) from the field for the game. Nevertheless, the team was inconsistent from three, finishing 6-for-20 from long range, with four of those coming in the second half.
In retrospect, what Manhattan really needed was more contributions from some of the team’s best offensive weapons. Stewart and Buchanan, who are regular fixtures in the starting lineup, were oddly quiet in this game, combining for a modest five points. Buchanan’s struggles were highlighted by a possession at the end of the first half in which he dribbled out the clock without realizing how much time there was. By the time Buchanan took his first step toward the basket, the clock expired and prevented Manhattan from further chipping away at the Fairfield lead. Meanwhile, Stewart, one of Manhattan’s best three-point shooters, went for 1-for-6 from three and finished with as many points as turnovers with three apiece.
Manhattan’s lack of success on the boards contributed to their downfall. The visitors were out rebounded 37-18 and especially struggled to keep possessions alive with offensive rebounds.
Another big factor was the absence of talented sophomore Tykei Greene. The Long Island native had been averaging 19.7 points-per-game over his last three games, but couldn’t take part in this one with a purported injury. The extent and nature of the injury is information that hasn’t circulated yet.
During his postgame interview, Masiello did reference how much the team missed Greene, while also not making any convenient excuses.
“Tykei wasn’t there at the three spot, but that’s still not an excuse because guys need to step up,” Masiello said.
Despite the loss, Williams left the court on Saturday feeling more like the player who averaged a solid 9.2 points-per-game last season.
“I’m just working on my execution and I think that’s what led me to be successful,” Williams said.
Although Masiello was happy to see Williams and Hinckson star in this game, individual stats mean very little to him, particularly after a loss.
“For me it’s not about individual performances, it’s about team wins,” Masiello said bluntly.
Looking forward, Masiello wants to see improvement in the team’s mental approach to the game. During Friday night’s game, there were too many times in which Masiello’s team didn’t look engaged.
“I just think focus, understanding the moment, and more urgency in certain situations,” Masiello said when asked what needs to be better moving forward.
Manhattan will look to move past this game when they host the Siena Saints (7-6, 3-1 MAAC) on Sunday, January 12th at Draddy Gymnasium. Tip-off is slated for 2 PM.