Masiello and Manhattan Enter Holidays on Wrong Note

by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor

The feeling that comes from losing two home games in a row is a painful sensation for any sports team. For two games, in back-to-back fashion on Saturday and Sunday, the Manhattan Jaspers failed to execute repeatedly against the Marist Red Foxes (5-1, 3-1 MAAC) and paid the price by leaving the Draddy Gym court having been swept. In a season that has been shrouded in mystery and volatility from day one, performances like these will only add to the hardship of playing a season during a pandemic. 

The Red Foxes entered the weekend series feeling good about themselves with an overall record of 3-1 after a series split with Canisius to open MAAC play. But that’s not to say the Red Foxes were projected to come into Draddy for a cakewalk. After all, Manhattan—although only two games into their season—were coming off a solid 87-77 win against a feisty Rider team, averting a winless start to the season for Masiello in which after the game he poked fun at the frequent doubt he had last season of scoring 87 points across two games. 

The satisfaction of that win soon became an afterthought by the time Saturday’s game started. 

If the Jaspers were ever in need of a mulligan to start a game, Saturday’s series opener with Marist would’ve been the best time to use it.

A 7-0 deficit for the Jaspers soon became 13-2. That 11-point hole grew even larger to 20-4 before the bleeding finally stopped. All said, it felt as if by the time the Jaspers took off their warm-up jerseys, the Red Foxes were well on their way toward victory. In basketball terms, Manhattan’s lifeless start amounted to 2-of-12 shooting from the field and 11 turnovers through ten plus minutes of action — nothing was going right to say the least.

Then, in typical MAAC basketball fashion, both teams assumed opposite roles, and before long the Jaspers were only trailing 20-17 after engineering a critical 13-0 run. Suddenly, it was the Red Foxes who were turning the ball over and missing shots at will. 

The first half ended with Marist clinging to a 24-23 lead, but the Jaspers still had time to right their wrongs. Unfortunately, they would never recover. 

The Jaspers went on to lose 61-39 accentuated by terrible numbers across the board, including 29.5 percent (13-44) shooting from the field; nine percent (2-22) from three; and 26 turnovers. It’s fair to say not a single Jasper played well, while the Red Foxes had four players in double figures, led by 20 points from freshman Hakim Byrd. 

As recent results have shown around the MAAC, anything can happen in a two-game series, with Fairfield managing a 43-point turnaround across two games against Iona on opening weekend. There was still hope for the Jaspers to right the ship before the series was over. One way or the other, it was going to be a tall task for the Jaspers to be worse on Sunday than they were on Saturday. 

While they did have their moments on Sunday, and looked better overall, they still came up short losing 72-67 in overtime. There is no time for morale victories during league play because those types of things won’t help make them MAAC contenders this season.

As has been the case early this season, the guard play was the most positive takeaway for Manhattan on Sunday, despite the absences of Samir Stewart and Elijah Buchanan due to injury. The backcourt of Ant Nelson and Jason Douglas-Stanley bounced back on Sunday by combining for 43 of Manhattan’s 67 points—Nelson led the way with 23—despite not having enough left in the tank to push their team to victory in overtime when the Jaspers were outscored 14-9. 

Had Buchanan played, the final score may have been different, but that’s a moot point looking back. According to Masiello, Buchanan was sidelined on Sunday after sustaining an undisclosed injury on Saturday in a game he scored nine points and recorded four steals in game one. Buchanan, who has been an on-court enigma since arriving in Riverdale two years ago, has found a groove early in the season with averages of 12.7 points-per-game and 5.7 rebounds-per-game. 

Nelson had a great first half—registering 15 points—but experienced an up and down second half. At times late in the game, Nelson got away from one of his biggest strengths which is driving to the hoop. Despite not scoring much in the second stanza, he still found ways to impact the game with his talent. On one sequence in particular in the second half, Nelson fed Williams with a nifty bounce pass for an easy layup before stripping Byrd off the in-bounds play for an uncontested slam. Those two highlights gave the Jaspers a 49-45 lead with 6:50 left in regulation. 

Douglas-Stanley’s 19 points were big for his confidence. In the first four games, the score-first guard seemed to have the green light from Masiello at all times. His high volume of shots is partially to blame for why his shooting percentage has stalled at 30 percent, other than some normal early-season streakiness. The Jaspers will welcome his scoring attitude, though, given that Manhattan’s offense has struggled in recent seasons. His potential as a scorer was best displayed in the closing minutes of regulation when he hit a tough mid-range shot to tie the game at 55 before coming back down with a three-pointer to give the Jaspers a three-point lead. It was instant offense at its finest. 

After a three from Ricardo Wright evened the score line with 30 seconds left, Masiello rightfully delegated the last shot of the game to Nelson, who has been the undisputed best player for the Jaspers so far. Operating with patience, Nelson dribbled the ball for almost all of the 30 seconds before getting off a contested three-point attempt that slightly missed. There clearly could have been more offensive organization on the final play, but nonetheless it seemed the safest option to defer to Nelson this early in the season with the chemistry still far from where it needs to be.

Then, there was the free throw anomaly. The Red Foxes took 40 free throw attempts compared to Manhattan’s 17, and to make matters worse the visitors hit 32 of theirs. The most valuable ones came in overtime as nine of the Red Foxes’ 11 points came via the charity stripe. 

Masiello’s comments after the game were tinged with clear disappointment about the inconsistency in foul calls between the two teams. 

“Any time you see a discrepancy at the free throw line to level like it was tonight is different, it’s a difference,” Masiello said after the game on Sunday. 

Still, Masiello knows there are no excuses for his team’s performances against a Marist team that is now off to its best start since the 1998-99 season. 

“I thought yesterday we weren’t ready and I thought it was a tough week coming out of finals,” Masiello said after the game on Sunday. “We were not prepared and that’s on me. We didn’t have good practices and a good practice routine coming in. I thought we did a good job today of taking care of the basketball early on. I think we did a better job taking care of it today which is more characteristic of us.” 

Any signs of defensive improvement this past weekend were overshadowed by the Jaspers’ shooting woes. The habit of being too dependent on players like Nelson and Douglas-Stanley makes the team vulnerable to long scoring droughts, such as what occurred on Saturday afternoon when the Jaspers scored only four points over the opening 11:23 of the first half and another four points over the opening 8:25 of the second half — which adds up to eight points in roughly half of the game. The offense won’t become more dynamic until scoring depth is supplied from the likes of players like Warren Williams, Nick Brennen, and Samba Diallo, who combined to score 14 points on Sunday despite each playing big minutes.

“We want to prioritize Warren and Samba and make sure we are getting three or four guys in double figures,” Masiello said.

Manhattan now heads off quietly into the holiday break unsure if they will be able to play any non-conference games during this unprecedented season. As of now, they don’t have any games scheduled until Jan. 15 and 16 when their MAAC schedule resumes at Canisius (1-1, 1-1 MAAC). That gives them more than three weeks off between MAAC games, and thus plenty of time to get a few non-conference games in if they can find willing partners. 

It may be worthwhile to re-engage with Fordham on finding a date for the 113th installment of Battle of the Bronx between the rival schools after the game was sadly called off this season due to COVID-19 complications. It’s far from a guarantee that such a game could happen given that the Rams’ rigorous Atlantic 10 schedule starts in the coming days. 

But there’s more to the process than just identifying these potential opponents. 

According to Masiello, the ball is in the court of the college’s administration for playing non-conference games that may become available. 

“We have opportunities but that’s up to the administration if we can play those or not,” Masiello said.