by Pete Janny, Sports Editor & Managing Editor
Manhattan 77, Quinnipiac 62
Rider 55, Manhattan 50
This is the sprint to the finish. The MAAC tournament is three weeks away and fifth-place Manhattan is looking to lock down a top-five seed to get a bye for the first round.
The Jaspers returned to Draddy this past week for two games after suffering a 74-53 loss at Marist on February 8th. The homestand started off on a positive note with Manhattan securing a comeback victory over perennial MAAC powerhouse Quinnipiac (12-11, 9-5 MAAC) on Thursday night. Two days later, the Jaspers dropped a 55-50 decision to the nation’s leading scorer, Stella Johnson, and the Rider Broncs (19-4, 12-2 MAAC). While showing just how good they could be against Quinnipiac, Manhattan reminded us on Saturday that consistency remains one of their biggest challenges.
All comeback victories feel good, but Thursday night’s effort against Quinnipiac had special meaning. In only the program’s second win ever against Quinnipiac, six Manhattan players scored in double digits to come back from as large as a nine-point deficit in the second quarter. Junior Sini Makela stole the show with a career-high 15 points with the help of three three-pointers.
From the way the opening quarter went, it seemed like the Jaspers were in for a defensive battle. Both teams shot under 30 percent over the opening 10 minutes with neither able to create any separation on the scoreboard. The most exciting development early on was the play of junior Courtney Warley, whose six points helped give her team a marginal 14-10 after one quarter.
The second quarter was a step back for Manhattan, signaling that the home team was potentially in for a long day.
Quinnipiac rattled off nine straight points to open the second quarter to seize a 21-14 lead by the 6:38 mark. With the Manhattan offense misfiring at will, the Jaspers started to abandon their defensive identity. In need of a spark plug, junior Lizahya Morgan started making her presence felt with her offensive aggressiveness. With her team down 27-18 and signs of a potential blowout creeping in, Morgan poured in eight of Manhattan’s final 11 points of the quarter. Overall, Morgan contributed 10 points as one of six double-digit scorers. Thanks in large part to Morgan’s breakthrough, Quinnipiac was unable to fully capitalize on Manhattan’s first-half struggles as the visitors’ entered the break with a slim 32-29 lead.
Out of the break, Manhattan had a pep in their step.
The Jaspers quickly reclaimed the lead when senior Julie Hoier converted a tough layup at 7:39 that put Manhattan ahead 35-34. That ended up being the last lead change of the night as Manhattan went on to stretch its lead to as high as 11 in the quarter. Whatever adjustments head coach Heather Vulin made at halftime worked wonders for a Manhattan team looking to beat Quinnipiac for the first time under the Vulin regime. Six Manhattan players scored in the third with no one standing out more than Makela. Eight of her 15 points came during the third quarter, including two of her three three-pointers. Vulin beamed with pride when talking about Makela after beating Quinnipiac.
“She is the ultimate teammate and she plays hard every possession,” Vulin said of Makela. “When a kid like that has a breakout game, you feel extra happy.”
“We had a really good prep for this game and we just felt good coming into this game,” Makela said. “Especially in the second half we came out aggressive and my teammates were able to find me.”
Despite being held in check for most of the second half, the Bobcats refused to give up. The visitors’ went on a 6-0 run to cut their deficit to 54-47 at the end of three.
However, Manhattan proved Quinnipiac’s mini resurgence was nothing more than a pretense as the Jaspers opened the fourth quarter on an 8-0 run to go up 15. This surge was fueled by a layup from Warley, along with a jumper and a three from Hoier. Warley finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, while Hoier ended her night with 13 points and seven rebounds. Vulin is well aware of just how tough those two players can be for opposing teams, especially when they are impacting the game offensively like they did against Quinnipiac.
“When those two want to score the ball, I put them against anybody in the league at their possession,” Vulin said of her talented frontcourt duo. “When they want the ball and shoot the ball, they are both really talented.”
The Bobcats wouldn’t get closer than eight back the rest of the way. With the Manhattan offense playing at a fast pace in the second half, Quinnipiac needed to do damage from three if they wanted any chance at victory. They never were able to get going from three thanks in large part to the Manhattan defense.
“I thought we did a really good job of defending the three-point line tonight. Our length disrupted them,” Vulin said.
Two days later, Manhattan couldn’t channel the same magic against Rider. Considering the Jaspers lost to the vaunted Broncs 76-53 on the road late last month, a win in this game was never going to be easy. Led by 27 points from the nation’s leading-scorer, Stella Johnson, Rider proved too much for Manhattan to handle inside with the Broncs outscoring Manhattan 32-18 in the paint.
Despite the disappointing result, Manhattan did not play with fear against the mighty Broncs. In fact, Manhattan led by as much as nine points in the second quarter following back-to-back baskets from sophomore Kania Pollock. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Pollock this year, who has only played in eight games this season due to injury. With the talented D’Yona Davis out the whole season as a medical redshirt, Vulin is hoping that other guards like Pollock can step up. Saturday was just the latest example of Manhattan guards not grabbing enough rebounds to make Vulin satisfied.
“At times I put four bigs in,” Vulin said of the rebounding shortcomings of her guards after the loss to Rider. “It’s something they have to buy into.”
Manhattan’s biggest regret was presumably the 11-0 Rider run they allowed at the end of the second quarter to enter the half down by two. Nine points from Stella Johnson in the third quarter gave the Broncs some much-needed breathing room as they took an eight-point cushion into the fourth quarter. Down by 10 with just over three minutes left, Manhattan made one last comeback bid that saw them whittle the deficit to just three following a three from Lizahya Morgan with 18 seconds left. From there, Johnson proceeded to ice the game with a pair from the line to cap off a typical performance from her.
In addition to her scoring contributions, Johnson added seven rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks.
Watching Johnson do her thing evoked in Vulin the potential of D’Yona Davis.
“When she’s [Davis] eligible next year she can be one of the leading scorers in the conference,” Vulin said of the sophomore medical redshirt.
The defensive performance on this day was an encouraging sight to Vulin against the top team in the MAAC this season.
“If you told me we were going to hold Rider to 55 points today, I thought we would win,” Vulin said after a game in which her team only shot 29.5 percent from the field. “They are one of the top scoring teams in the league so defensively I was really proud of the effort.”
If not for the special game that Warley had, the scoreline would’ve been a lot worse. In addition to her team-high 12 points, the junior center registered a career-high 19 rebounds that allowed Manhattan to out-rebound the Broncs by a 42-37 count. Warley’s dominant performance on the boards gave her sole possession of 12th place on the program’s all-time rebounding list at 636. She just needs five more rebounds to tie for 11th in the rankings. In addition, Warley’s three blocks against Rider brought her career total in blocks to 102. In only her third season in Riverdale, Warley joins an exclusive company as one of five players in program history to eclipse 100 blocks for their career.
Vulin continues to be amazed by what Warley can do on the court.
“If she’s not defensive player of the year, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Vulin pleaded. “She gives you the ultimate effort.”
The Jaspers will go play Canisius and Niagara in Western New York before returning for a senior day match-up with Fairfield on Saturday, Feb. 29. Tipoff for that game is slated for 2 p.m.