by Pete Janny, Sports Editor
Nothing easy is given to teams in the MAAC, a conference notorious for its parity mostly every year. The great unknown that brews in this mid-major conference that houses 11 schools from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut has probably become even stronger since Tim Cluess’ departure from Iona this past offseason, marking the end of a dynasty run that saw the Gaels win four straight MAAC Championships from 2016-2019.
For this 2020-2021 season, the undisputed favorite to win it all from day one is the Siena Saints. Even after undergoing three separate quarantines, second-year head coach Carmen Maciariello has his Saints team off to a 4-0 start in what is shaping up to be a revenge tour after COVID-19 abruptly ended their magical run a season ago. However, don’t put your money on anyone yet, because as sharp as Siena has looked out of the gate they are still a program that hasn’t hoisted a MAAC Championship since 2010.
Nothing is guaranteed in the trenches of the MAAC, including the destiny of the two teams that squared off in Hamden, Connecticut this past weekend.
The on-court performances from the Manhattan Jaspers and Quinnipiac Bobcats were far from rousing. Prior to both teams playing to a split last weekend, Manhattan had already been experiencing early-season turbulence due to poor shooting, while the Bobcats hadn’t played for 31 days due to COVID-19 setbacks.
On Friday, double overtime was needed with the Bobcats ultimately prevailing after Manhattan unraveled and blew a nine-point lead late in the second half. The quality of play from both teams dropped off a day later as Manhattan eked out a 45-43 win in a game that was as ugly as the score suggests. A win is a win, and the Jaspers were able to avoid the sweep, but it was nothing to celebrate for Manhattan given the way they played.
“We’re still trying to find our chemistry as a lot of teams are,” Masiello told the Quad earlier this week. “We’re doing some good things defensively and doing good things on the offensive end.”
Poor offensive execution has been a stigma for Manhattan this season and they couldn’t ward it off last weekend either. The shooting woes were hard to ignore as the Jaspers shot 35 percent in game one before regressing to 28 percent in game two. In addition, the offensive malaise appears to be having a direct correlation with their sluggish starts to games, too.
Such was the case in game one when Manhattan fell into a 12-0 hole to start the game thanks to misfiring on their first 10 shots. Fortunately for the Jaspers, Quinnipiac couldn’t fully capitalize on it, and Manhattan recovered by hitting five three-pointers to arrive at the break only down 37-33.
With the momentum still on their side, a 15-4 surge in the second half gave Manhattan their first lead of the game at 48-41 and it remained with them for most of the second half. The lead got as high as 11 points until a late run by Quinnipiac put the Bobcats up one with 35 seconds remaining in regulation.
The script for how Manhattan has tended to start and close games was being manifested yet again: when in doubt, go cold.
Before going cold late in game one, Manhattan managed to build their lead off of improved communication and execution on the offensive end coupled with the emergence of Warren Williams.
Williams had one of the worst halves of his Manhattan career in the first game before redeeming himself to finish with 19 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks, with all of his points coming after the first half. He played sparingly in that first half and was ensnared in foul trouble. Ebube Ebube stepped up to relieve him and played well enough to be able to start the second half in replacement of Williams.
Whatever it was that later awakened Williams has been missing for most of the season. Matched up with the Bobcats’ lengthy and lean center Seth Pinkney, Williams started to find a rhythm in the post and became a handful for the Bobcats. It felt like a flashback to his freshman year form as Williams started impacting the game with dunks, hook shots, and shot blocking. Later on, the Manhattan big man helped force overtime with 18 seconds left in regulation by converting on a three-point play off of a nice dish from Samir Stewart. The ensuing free throw knotted the score at 64 to set the stage for overtime.
“He’s doing a lot of good things for us and he’s a presence for us at all times,” Masiello said of Williams’ play.
Ant Nelson, who came into the series ranked in the top 20 nationally from the charity stripe, had a chance to seal the deal from the line for Manhattan in the final seconds of the first overtime, but would make only one of two free throws to instead tie the game and precipitate a second overtime period. Nelson finished the game with 15 points and 11 rebounds, but those numbers were misleading when factoring in his four turnovers and 4-of-15 shooting performance, including going 1-of-6 from three. His performance in game two slipped even more when he scored only five points, marking the first time he failed to reach double digits in his short time as a Jasper.
In the second overtime, Quinnipiac made more plays to pull out the victory. They used a 9-0 run to take control before icing the game from the free-throw line.
24 hours later, Manhattan got their retribution by coming away winners in a defensive battle that saw both teams held below 50 points.
After creating separation with a 19-4 second-half run that lasted nearly 10 minutes, Manhattan almost blew another late lead in the finale with the Bobcats refusing to quit. Barely holding on, the Jaspers were able to pull out the win despite scoring their final field goal of the game—a three from Elijah Buchanan—with still over four minutes left.
“Getting the second one was a testament to our guys’ character and their grit to stay with it and lock in,” Masiello said.
In a game of runs, Manhattan’s last one was the most decisive and compensated for the litany of turnovers and missed shots throughout the game. There aren’t many games when neither team has a double-digit scorer, but this game also checked off that box to further add to the drama.
In his second game back from injury, Stewart led the way with eight points after posting 10 points and five assists in the first game. The rest of the scoring contributions included seven points from Samba Diallo, six from Jason-Douglas Stanley, and four players who scored five apiece.
“I did not like his shot selection on Friday and I thought he pressed a bit,” Masiello said in reference to Stewart’s return. “I thought he did an excellent job on Saturday bouncing back and doing things that helped us win.”
Douglas-Stanley turned in his most disappointing two-game stretch to date against Quinnipiac, totaling only nine points on 3-of-21 shooting overall and went 2-of-11 from three-point range. His shooting numbers on the season, and perhaps his confidence as well, took a big hit by the end of weekend as his field-goal percentage and three-point percentage currently stand at 26 percent and 22 percent, respectively. Douglas-Stanley, who is averaging 9.4 points per game, could be given a free pass for now since none of his teammates performed up to par against Quinnipiac either. However, Masiello may pump the brakes on certain players’ minutes if they continue to struggle shooting the ball.
Manhattan’s attention now shifts to the Niagara Purple Eagles (5-5, 4-4 MAAC) who will come to Draddy for two games on 1/15 and 1/16 that each start at 4 pm.
Niagara has battled their own consistency issues early in the season. Similar to Manhattan, the Purple Eagles have fared better in the second game of back-to-backs with Niagara 3-1 and Manhattan 2-1 under such circumstances. They will each look to perform better in the opener this time around in hopes of starting to perform at a level closer to their preseason projections, which had Manhattan ranked fifth and Niagara right behind them in sixth. Expect the Jaspers to try to use height to their advantage against a smaller Niagara team that enters the series last in the MAAC in rebounding margin (minus-4.4) and was the worst rebounding team in the country a season ago.
“Greg Paulus does a great job and his players play hard,” said Masiello when asked about the matchup with Niagara. “Like anything else it’s another weekend in the MAAC that you need to be ready for.”
With the schedule moving along, the Jaspers won’t want to keep settling for series splits like they did against Quinnipiac and Rider, two teams that were projected to finish behind them in the standings. Including this forthcoming matchup with Niagara, Manhattan has benefited from a relatively easy schedule to open conference play. If they don’t start making the necessary improvements on the fly, the Jaspers run the risk of experiencing a harsh reckoning by the time they play legitimate contenders like Siena, Iona, or Monmouth.