By Pete Janny, Sports Editor
On a night Manhattan honored the historic 1994-95 men’s basketball team that made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, the current Jaspers (10-10, 6-5 MAAC) played with extra motivation en route to a lopsided 77-59 win over the Niagara Purple Eagles (7-15, 5-6 MAAC) that was shown live on ESPNU.
Manhattan only trailed for 14 seconds in this game in rewarding the Manhattan faithful and the heroes of the 1994-95 team with one of their more complete performances of the season. Manhattan’s easy win was guided by the Jaspers’ bully mentality in the paint. Pauly Paulicap and Warren Williams stole the show with 20 and 14 points respectively on a combined 13-of-15 shooting from the field with eight rebounds apiece. All in all, it was a total team effort from Manhattan that featured stellar execution on both ends for the home team.
The game plan going in was to do damage down low against a Niagara team that was only averaging 27.5 rebounds-per-game due to their lack of height. Manhattan outrebounded the Purple Eagles 41-29 on this night with the team’s size advantage best exemplified by a fast start from senior Pauly Paulicap.
Paulicap, who only scored three points in the win over Iona, supplied Manhattan’s first nine points in this one. Niagara had no response for Paulicap’s imposing presence down low as Manhattan kept running the offense through him in the early stages. He made four of his first five shots, including a nifty hook shot at the 16:49 mark that put Manhattan up 9-4. Moments later, the Manhattan lead was pushed to 13-6 when one of Paulicap’s signature rejections led to a crafty layup on the other end for sophomore Elijah Buchanan.
The Purple Eagles entered the game shooting a proud 36 percent from three on the season but were forced to adjust their style of play against Manhattan.
High pressure applied by the Jaspers’ on the perimeter limited Niagara to only five three-point attempts in the first half, two of which dropped.
With his team down 19-9, Nick McDonald hit his second three of the night at the 9:32 mark of the first half that sparked a 9-3 run for the visitors to cut the Manhattan lead to just four. Even during this positive stretch, Niagara still had to earn everything with Manhattan not giving them anything easy. Already restrained from three, Niagara was also struggling to get any easy looks down low against Manhattan’s height. As a result, the Purple Eagles were forced to score their points off of tough mid-range shots. These difficult circumstances prevented Niagara leading-scorer Marcus Hammond from getting on the board until the 6:11 mark of the first half. Hammond, who entered the game averaging 13.5 points-per-game, only scored nine points in this game.
Led by Paulicap’s 12 points, Manhattan sat with a 34-25 lead at the break. A surprising narrative of the first half was Manhattan’s lethality from the free throw line. Despite coming in with only a 62 percent average as a team from the line, the Manhattan players were a combined 8-of-9 from the charity stripe in the first half.
After only scoring two points in the first half largely due to picking up two early fouls, sophomore Warren Williams played like a man on a mission in the second half.
With the way Manhattan was feasting on Niagara inside all night, Williams’ breakthrough was predictable. Williams’ first basket of the second half came a little less than two minutes in when Buchanan dribbled his way into the paint before setting the big man up for an easy layup. Williams wreaked havoc again the next time down the court when he kept a Manhattan offensive possession alive with two offensive rebounds before converting an and-one that stretched the lead to 41-32 after his made free throw.
Head coach Steve Masiello knows the Manhattan offense ascends to new heights when Buchanan passes the ball the way he did on this night.
“He’s a tremendous passer and probably has the best feel on the team,” Masiello said of Buchanan, who finished with seven points, five rebounds, and three assists. “He’s such a good scorer but when he sets the table early we are really good and I want him to do more of that.”
There’s no need to remind Masiello of the talent his frontcourt possesses. Masiello is grateful to have players of the caliber of Williams and Paulicap on his side.
“I think they are the best two-headed monster in the league,” Masiello said of the dual threat of Paulicap and Williams. “They are both very different but they are both very effective.”
While it never seemed likely that Niagara would fully come back, they at least managed to hang around. The Purple Eagles hit four of their first seven shots to open the half and were still playing hard. Niagara’s kryptonite was their inability to hit enough threes.
“When you get the lead you have to suffocate the three-point line and I thought we did a good job of that tonight,” Masiello said after his team held Niagara to 3-of-14 shooting from three.
Looking to bury Niagara for good, Manhattan unleashed a 14-3 run that started with a three from sophomore Christian Hinckson with 11 minutes left. The run culminated with an emphatic alley oop slam by Paulicap with eight minutes left off a feed from the perimeter by senior Tyler Reynolds that made the score 65-44 and sent Draddy into a frenzy. A little less than a minute later, junior Nehemiah Mack hit his third and final three of the night that swelled the lead to 22.
Mack, who paced the team in scoring with 15 points against Iona, has solidified himself as a vital cog of this team. Masiello was effusive in his praise of Mack after the game.
“He’s so solid and makes every right play,” Masiello said of Mack, who finished with nine points. “He takes unbelievable pride in his role and doesn’t try to be someone he’s not.”
Manhattan cruised the rest of the way with their lead growing to as high as 25 three times. The Jaspers ended the night at 43 percent (24-of-56) from the field, including 35 percent from three (8-of-23). Joining Paulicap and Williams in double digits was sophomore Samir Stewart with 12 points.
For Masiello, his philosophy has always been based on the importance of getting better every day. He knows the results will come if his players continue to work hard each day.
“I don’t think we’re peaking yet,” Maisello said. “I just feel like we’re doing the right things and are trying to get better everyday.”
At halftime, members of the 1994-95 team were honored at halfcourt alongside former Manhattan head coach Fran Fraschilla in recognition of the 25th anniversary of their upset win over Oklahoma in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. In addition to winning a school-record 26 games that season, the team lives on in the annals of college basketball as the first at-large bid in MAAC history. The only other MAAC team to achieve that feat was the 2011-12 Iona Gaels who led the nation in scoring that season.
Manhattan will face Iona (6-12, 4-7 MAAC) in New Rochelle this Friday at 7 PM. The Jaspers snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Gaels earlier this month when they beat their rival 72-49 at Draddy Gymnasium.