by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor
The Lady Jaspers are off to a solid start this season amidst high expectations they haven’t had in a long time. Their overall record of 3-3 may not be desirable under most circumstances, but exceptions should be made up to this point as a result of the added challenges and complications every team has had to face due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was only back in early December when the team resumed their regular practice routine after dealing with a quarantine that paused practice for several days and cancelled four games. As every team would probably tell you—including the men’s team—the experience of being quarantined causes a reset for the program that is as mentally frustrating as it is physically demanding to get back into game shape.
Without making any excuses for themselves, the team fulfilled their quarantine requirement and then got back to work with little time left before the start of competition.
Shortly after resuming activities, the team announced a home game against a formidable Stony Brook team that would be played only a few days after the restart to give them extra preparation for the MAAC season. Although they lost 65-52 and were exposed in several areas as a team, it was ultimately the right decision to play as they gained more experience as a unit ahead of their first MAAC series at Rider. After all, the chances of them shooting 26 percent from the field in another game this season were probably on their side.
They would go on to take care of business against the Broncs by sweeping them on the road to kick off their regular season in style. Any glaring deficiencies that were on display for the Lady Jaspers across the two games were negated by the struggles of a Rider team that had to replenish its roster over the offseason. With program legend Stella Johnson now in the WNBA, the experience of playing Rider was much easier for the Lady Jaspers this time around. They eked out a five-point win in game won despite laboring throughout much of the game and turning the ball over 26 times. Their game two performance was hardly any better, as illustrated by a trivial 5-3 scoring advantage in the second quarter and registering 19 more turnovers.
The biggest advantage against Rider came with star center Courtney Warley, who picked up where she left off from last season by doing most of the heavy lifting against the Broncs. She scored 33 points between the two games, including going 13-of-16 from the free throw line in the opener that virtually clinched the win for her team. She then totaled 13 of Manhattan’s 36 rebounds in game two to help the visitors stay within striking distance of Rider’s 38 boards en route to another Manhattan win.
“It’s really special to have someone of that commitment, that talent, and that conditioning who can play the way she plays,” head coach Heather Vulin said about Warley after completing the sweep of Rider.
While the two wins at Rider felt good, the real test was going to be against the Bobcats of Quinnipiac University, a program that has been as reliably good as any other team in the MAAC over the past few seasons. For the Lady Jaspers, there was no backing down to the mighty Bobcats a season ago and it showed through their season-series split in the regular season that set the stage for a quarterfinals matchup in Atlantic City. Sadly, the coronavirus had other plans, placing MAAC basketball and all other sports on the backburner of society.
The rematch was going to have to wait.
Though neither team was able to get the last laugh back in March, that didn’t stop MAAC officials from giving a massive vote of confidence to Manhattan with the preseason number one seed. Looking up at them in the poll was none other than Quinnipiac—who was picked second with Fairfield—fueling all the more interest around the matchups between both schools this season.
Both games against Quinnipiac provided a treat to fans who had to wait nine months to once again indulge in some of the best action that MAAC basketball has to offer.
After stunning the Bobcats in overtime in game one on a Emily LaPointe buzzer beater, Quinnipiac returned the favor in game two with a convincing 61-50 in which sophomore Mikayla Morris torched Manhattan with 25 points and 17 rebounds.
Getting the split at home in this newfound rivalry was seemingly a satisfactory outcome for the Lady Jaspers, who looked far more ready this time out than they did against Rider.
The Jaspers’ got a big boost in game one from star players LaPointe, D’yona Davis, and Warley, who accounted for 46 of the team’s 71 points. The playmaking prowess of LaPointe and Davis from the guard position was an especially refreshing sight after both players were clearly off their game in the Rider series.
In the overtime period, Davis showed signs of her elite ability as a scorer by draining three three-pointers to finish with 14 points.
“She is just a really talented player and talented scorer, and I felt like she really rose to the challenge in overtime,” Vulin said of Davis, a player whose potential she likened to former Rider star Stella Johnson last season. “She has the ability to light up the scoresheet really quick.”
Then, down by one for the final possession, LaPointe—who had her best game on the young season with 15 points, a career-best nine assists, and five rebounds—dribbled the length of the court, dished off to Warley whose midrange jumper with three seconds left misfired and fell right back into LaPointe’s hands for the last-second conversion at the buzzer. On that note, the greatest highlight in recent memory for the program was now ingrained in the minds of all who witnessed it and the storybook ending was complete, topped off by a swarming celebration involving LaPointe and her teammates.
“It felt like a playoff game and I love competing in the MAAC because there are such great players and coaches,” Vulin said after the win over Quinnipiac on Dec. 18.
If only Manhattan was able to summon more magic the next night then they may have had a better shot of slowing down the Bobcats’ rising star Mikalya Morris.
In uncharacteristic fashion, the sophomore outperformed Warley on both ends like few others have in an 11-point victory for the visitors. To add to the Lady Jaspers’ sorrows, the big names went away quietly into the mid-December night plagued by futile shooting as LaPointe, Warley, and Davis shot a combined 10-of-44 from the field.
The only reason why the score wasn’t more lopsided was because of the dual contributions of Gabby Cajou and Lizahya Morgan, who added 12 and 9 points respectively on 5-of-7 shooting from deep.
Vulin is waiting on the game when most of her rotation players are firing on all cylinders at the same time like they did on a few occasions last season particularly during their five-game winning streak at the end.
Unfortunately, that type of performance had to wait until after the new year.
Because when Lady Jaspers visited Rutgers on the eve of Christmas Eve, they had no answers for the Scarlet Knights in what resulted in a 84-41 loss for Manhattan.
The game served no harm for the team in the bigger picture of their goal to win the MAAC Championship; it was nothing more than a worthwhile challenge designed to arm the team with more experience and toughness for the rest of their MAAC schedule. The initial plan for Manhattan was to host Nebraska in Draddy this season after playing in Lincoln last season as part of a home and home agreement between the two institutions. Thanks to COVID-19, the return game in Riverdale this year was scrapped, which gave rise to the idea of playing another Big 10 member school such as Rutgers, who are conveniently located just a state away in New Jersey.
The Lady Jaspers could get somewhat of a pass for all the rough edges of their game up to now, and the same holds true for not overanalyzing the positives they have shown. However, in a season truly unlike any other, the time will come when the goals of playing consistent and getting tangible results become less immune to criticism the more the vaccines create a greater sense of normalcy in everyday life. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, quarantines will be less common occurrences for college basketball teams across the country and health-related distractions will subside. These eventual improvements in conditions may end up revealing more about the true identity of teams and how realistic their chances are of competing for a championship. For now, it’s a wait and see game.
There’s still much to find out about the Lady Jaspers. As the calendar officially flips to the new year, there is no time for excuses as all eyes will remain on the ultimate prize — conquering the MAAC Tournament. In case any reminder was needed, LeBron and the Lakers have already shown that the best teams prevail in the end, regardless of the set of circumstances caused by the pandemic.
When the Twitter account for the team posted a video of the players’ reaction to finding out about them taking the top spot in the preseason poll, the expression of pure joy and excitement on the faces of the players while they hugged and frolicked was not meant as a pompous gesture directed at other teams. Instead, the euphoric scene marked a celebration of the program’s arrival to relevancy four years into Vulin’s tenure following years stuck in the doldrums. The preseason poll is a nominal metric that means very little in reality, regardless of the alluring possibilities it may suggest. Whether or not people like Vulin or athletic director Marianne Reilly would care to admit, the ascension of the Lady Jaspers into contention in the MAAC is a consequence of the shining example that people like Tricia Fabbri has set during her 25 years in charge of the Quinnipiac program. To put the program’s growth under Vulin into perspective, the last time Manhattan was tabbed to finish this high in the MAAC standings was back in 2002-2003 season when they were picked to finish second and went on to win a MAAC Championship.
Vulin and Manhattan still have a lot to prove to outsiders to warrant comparisons to programs like Quinnipiac and Marist, who have been the cornerstone MAAC programs on the women’s side for a large share of the 21st century. The distinction of being named preseason number one has put a target on Manhattan’s back that will take some time to get used to. The Lady Jaspers are still ways away from where they both need to be and want to be to fulfill their potential. For now, they can appreciate both the thrill and privilege of getting to compete in the dogfight for MAAC supremacy with other teams like Fairfield, Marist, and Quinnipiac.
The possibilities of the new year, specifically the prospect of hoisting up the trophy at Boardwalk Hall come March, promise to make 2021 another step in the right direction for the Lady Jaspers.