by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor
When Steve Masiello and his team departed the Bronx for their brief road trip to Delaware State (0-5), the tenth-year head coach experienced another chilling reminder of the strangeness of playing college basketball during a pandemic. It was not an unfamiliar feeling for Masiello, whose team was forced to quarantine at the start of this erratic season, but this time the angst was unfolding on the road away from the friendly confines of Draddy Gym.
Once the skyscrapers of New York City faded in the backdrop, the team bus was still not much closer to its final destination of Dover, Delaware. The Jaspers left the day before the game to get situated in a hotel in Philadelphia before traveling more than an hour to Dover on the morning of game day. Once there, the team had to undergo coronavirus testing before the 1 pm tip-off on Dec. 30 against a Hornets program the Jaspers beat 85-74 at Draddy to kick off the 2019-2020 season.
Fortunately there were no red flags in the testing process, but that still didn’t take away from how surreal it all felt. It was a moment that hit home for Masiello, who has seen a lot in his 24 seasons between playing and coaching college basketball, but nothing like these oddities.
“The world is so different and I’m so thankful and appreciative that we were able just to do what we’re doing,” Masiello said about playing amidst the unique circumstances of this season. “We are just so lucky that we can play and do things that we love. Obviously we need to do what’s best for our safety but it’s almost surreal that as much as we are worrying about our opponent this has now become part of the norm of how you prepare for this stuff. You have to prepare for it like you would anything else.”
After going through those few hoops just to play, the Jaspers were able to make enough plays on the court to secure a 65-59 victory against the winless Hornets. It wasn’t pretty, but getting the win felt good for a team who has not had much to smile about early on this season. The victory snapped a two-game losing streak for Manhattan to end their 2020 on the right note.
“We’re still five games in on the year so this should really be like December 1st right now,” Masiello told the Quad after the game. “So it’s about conditioning, about shot selection and it’s about execution.”
Ethan Lasko was the player of the first half for the Jaspers, hitting three three-pointers, including one from the right corner just before the buzzer to cap off a 14-2 run to end the first half. The Jaspers entered the break with a 33-23 lead.
Although they were far from playing their best, it still looked as if the Jaspers were going to eventually find a way to build an insurmountable lead against a Hornets team that often looked vulnerable on both ends of the floor in the first half.
But those knockout punches were pretty much non-existent; at least not until the waning moments of the game.
That’s because a shaky second half for Manhattan made it far from a sure thing that they would end up with more points than the opposition when it was all said and done.
On three occasions, the Hornets cut as high as a 13-point lead for Manhattan to three points to make things interesting for a while. The Jaspers’ moderate success from three in the first half faded in the second half when they converted on only 1-of-11 attempts from downtown to finish 5-of-23 overall. With very little going their way inside either, the Jaspers’ offense stalled and it ended up affecting them on the defensive side in the second half as well.
“I thought our offense got a little stagnant,” Masiello said about his team’s second-half performance.
Although they never really found a way to play well, the Hornets tried to make up for it by playing smarter basketball in the second half, which meant less of an emphasis on shooting threes and more of a focus on getting easy looks inside. Forty-one percent shooting from the field in the second half helped the Hornets stick around despite only attempting 12 free throws for the entire game compared to the Jaspers’ 28 attempts at the charity stripe.
For the Jaspers, Ant Nelson’s struggles in the beginning of the game contributed to his team’s sluggish start.
The lefty point guard was uncharacteristically off his game, missing open shots and committing turnovers. Some of the mishaps had to do with Delaware State’s defensive toughness, but it was also a result of Nelson not having his usual flair for the spectacular for whatever reason. Masiello holds his starting point guard to high standards after having seen him terrorize defenses with his repertoire of skills early in his Jasper career.
“Wake up and stop being so cool,” Masiello said when asked what his message was to Nelson. “He’s a marked man and so with that comes urgency. He has to be ready to match that and offset that.”
The coach’s message to Nelson at the half must have struck a chord because his play was better out of the break. He scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, highlighted by an aggressive baseline penetration which led to a bucket and a foul to put the Jaspers up 55-47 with 5:40 left in regulation after the made free throw.
After a free throw from the Hornets’ Zach Kent cut the lead to three with 1:43 left, the Jaspers came up with timely buckets and made several free throws to escape with the win. Overall the Jaspers shot 18-of-28 from the free throw line, including 11-of-13 in the second half.
“We’re still not where we need to be but I thought we put ourselves in a position to complete forty-minute games,” Masiello said of his team’s conditioning. “A constant theme for us right now is response to adversity. ‘Are we hanging our heads or are we getting back to get stops?’ And that’s what I want to see.”
Against a Hornets team that was far from imposing down low, Manhattan managed to get outscored 40-28 for points in the paint despite giving up a season-low 59 points.
“I think we had some more urgency on the defensive end,” Masiello said. “I still saw a lot of defensive breakdowns but we’ll clean those up.”
Starting center Warren Williams had his first career double-double performance with 10 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks, even though he still lacked consistency at times. At least it was a step in the right direction for Manhattan’s big man.
“I thought he was in shape,” Masiello said of Williams. “When he’s in good shape he makes good plays and we saw that in the second half around the rim and with some nice post work. A lot of good things from that standpoint and I think as he gets in better shape his game will get better and better.”
Elijah Buchanan paced Manhattan with 16 points in his return from injury despite 1-of-5 shooting from three. Lasko finished with nine points by virtue of his three threes to lead the bench scorers. For Delaware State, Myles Carter led the way with 12 points and Zach Kent chipped in 11 to round out the double-digit scorers for the home team.
“He’s doing a lot of good things,” Masiello said of Buchanan. “He had seven rebounds tonight and I really liked his motor.”
After the game Masiello gave updates on the statuses of Samir Stewart and Samba Diallo who both missed the game due to injury. He indicated that they are both day to day which gives them a good chance of returning to action for the two games at Quinnipiac on Jan. 8 and 9. Diallo has only missed one game, while Stewart has not been active since sustaining an injury in the season-opener versus Rider.
Masiello is hopeful that with more game experience and a continuous practice routine, his team will get closer to reaching their potential after an eventful first month filled with health-related distractions. The changes in protocol this season due to COVID-19 are not designed to be easy for any team. Masiello has seen the effects firsthand.
“We didn’t play organized basketball from March until September, but we had a harder time coming back from the 14-day quarantine than we did the five months,” Masiello said in reference to the quarantine his team experienced from late November into early December. “I think a big part of that is the mental side of it. Because although the kids weren’t playing organized basketball over the summer, they were still interacting with people and around family. Mentally they were in a much better place.”
2020 was far from a good experience for virtually anyone, but at least the Jaspers were able to conclude theirs with a win. Whether or not they can get similar results in the early portion of this new year will be interesting to keep an eye on. But just as sweet as winning is also making sure that your players feel healthy, happy, and empowered to be themselves in the process. Masiello doesn’t want to forget the part about instilling life lessons in the daily grind of his job because those have become more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think this year—and you know me I’m probably the most competitive person there is—this is about using our platform for social justice and to bring normalcy back in our world that we live in,” Masiello said. “This year’s about a platform for these kids. It’s about representing your colleges and universities and really appreciating what we get to do. This is so unheard of with what’s going on and these kids are on college campuses with no one else there and they are here working their tails off. They are taking care of their bodies and representing their colleges and there’s a risk that they are willing to take. Hats off to the student-athletes not just here at Manhattan, but at all colleges for really stepping up and taking great ownership and wearing masks. It sets a great example for our country so I’m really proud of these kids.”
The memories of staying in that Philadelphia hotel and getting tested pregame marked the end of 2020 for Masiello and his team in perhaps the most fitting way. Not even the bus ride from Riverdale to Dover was simple in a season that has been anything but straightforward.
But hey, at least 2020 is in the past.