by, Pete Janny and Whit Anderson, Sports Editor and Staff Writer
Manhattan (5-4, 4-4 MAAC) seems to be building momentum in the middle stretch of the MAAC season following a big series sweep of Niagara (5-7, 4-6 MAAC) this past weekend at home.
Coming into the series the Jaspers’ overall performance through their first seven games was far from spectacular, but they are now trending up amidst a three-game winning streak. In Masiello’s tenure, the program’s identity has mostly been established on the defensive end, and they were in vintage form this past weekend against the Purple Eagles. Their defensive stylings were the driving force behind the success they had en route to the series sweep.
The game plan against a disciplined Niagara team that turns the ball over the least in the MAAC was to pressure them into making mistakes, while also exploiting their lack of height on the rebounding front. The rebounding was a constant success for the Jaspers, and the defense stepped up by turning the Purple Eagles over 19 times in the first game which was a season high. It was this attention to detail from Manhattan that held Niagara to under 60 points in both games.
By playing fundamentally sound, Manhattan was able to finish the weekend in sole possession of fifth place, bypassing the Purple Eagles in the process.
The two main advantages the Jaspers had in game one was their defense and three-point shooting.
While not known for their outside shooting, Manhattan got off to a torrid start from long range, making five of their first eight with three of them coming from Elijah Buchanan as part of a 14-point performance for the local kid.
The Jaspers eventually came back down to earth in that half as turnovers and missed shots started piling up, but they still took a 33-30 lead into halftime.
The second half was more of the same in terms of defensive intensity which all but assured the double-digit win for the Jaspers to open the series.
A day later, they took care of business again with a 6-0 run late in the second half to stave off a comeback attempt from the Purple Eagles.
Unlike the few scoring spurts they had in game one, the Jaspers weren’t as in sync offensively in game two, but strong defense and a 36-28 rebounding advantage were among the reasons why they were able to complete the sweep.
The Jaspers’ defense and press constantly irked the Purple Eagles in both the halfcourt and backcourt. As a result, the visitors couldn’t get any player to step up, including preseason All-MAAC selection Marcus Hammond, who went 6-of-25 with only 10 points in each game. A large amount of credit for Hammond’s struggles could go to Samir Stewart, who made it his mission to not give the star guard any inch of space to hurt them. Stewart recorded four steals in game one to go along with 13 points, before adding eight points in game two.
“Whenever Hammond wanted to bring the ball up tonight we wanted to force other guys to make plays,” said Masiello, whose teams have a history of shutting down the opposition’s best player. “No disrespect to them, but we wanted the non-playmaking guys to have to make decisions.
Given their height problems, Niagara gets themselves into danger when they can’t hit from three, and their futility from deep in this series plagued them against Manhattan.
Hammond and company were never able to get going as the Manhattan defense limited them to 7-of-28 from downtown across the two games.
After falling behind by eight at halftime, Niagara had to find ways to speed up their pace against the Jaspers if they were going to come back. Once they made that adjustment, the increased tempo from the Purple Eagles infused a sense of spontaneity and harmony to their play and at the very least made the second half of competition between the two teams more exciting.
“Teams choose to play slow on us because we want to speed you up,” Masiello said after the second game. “They’re making a decision to slow down. We want to play fast, so that’s why we’re pressing to speed the other team up and make them uncomfortable.
Niagara would tie the game at 44 with a little over eight minutes left, but couldn’t get over the hump from there. Shortly thereafter, the Jaspers received a boost with some timely baskets, which included an Ant Nelson jumper, a Warren Williams’ layup, and a clutch corner three from Buchanan.
“I think it’s all about conditioning and it’s about having legs under you,” Masiello said when asked why he thinks his team had better execution at the end of the Niagara games.
Manhattan was led in game two by three double-digits scorers, as Williams and Nelson each contributed 12 points, while Buchanan poured in 14. Williams earned another double-double with 10 rebounds, and Nelson bounced back in the second half with a couple nifty attacks to the hoop after turning the ball over fives times in the opening stanza.
“It’s not about talent with him, it’s about focus and motor,” Masiello said in regards to the recent setbacks in Nelson’s play which haven’t allowed him to eclipse the 20-point mark since Dec. 20 against Marist. “People are coming at him because he’s a transfer from Seton Hall and was highly rated. So he has to understand that other teams are circling him as a target.”
Buchanan was Manhattan’s best player for the series as his two-way prowess continues to emerge. The junior guard scored 14 points in each game and supplied seemingly endless energy on defense. His development has stalled at times during his career at Manhattan, which has had to do with lack of trust and growing pains with his outside shot. However, those concerns will fade if Buchanan maintains his confidence and leads by example. Despite a poor shooting performance in the second game at Quinnipiac, Buchanan came back with a vengeance against Niagara by scoring from mid-range, on the fast break, and even from three. He was 5-of-10 from deep for the series with perhaps the biggest of those coming with 4:23 left in game two that stretched Manhattan’s lead to six.
An undisclosed injury forced Buchanan out of the game for a few minutes late in the second half, but it wasn’t severe enough to stop him from staying on the bench. As it stands, there are no indications that it will jeopardize his status for next weekend’s games at home against Monmouth. But if it is actually something more serious, then Manhattan may have to be ready to play without a player who is too important to lose at the moment.
Masiello’s willingness to experiment with his lineups was shown once again by his decision to start Ethan Lasko in both games. Lasko earned his first career start the previous weekend in the second game against Quinnipiac before being deployed as a starter yet again. This time around, Lasko had a quiet weekend with only five points on 1-of-5 shooting from three as he tried to make the most of a starting role that seems to be open for the taking at the moment. But whether it is as a starter or coming off the bench, Lasko will be called on to do what he does best which is spacing the floor as a shooting threat.
“He spaces the floor for us, you have to honor him as a shooter,” Masiello said of Lasko, whose percentage from three fell to 28 at the conclusion of the series. “Even if he misses his first four threes, I think he’ll make his next six. He just does a lot of things that affect winning.”
The Jaspers are set to get their toughest challenge of the season when the Monmouth Hawks come to Draddy Gym this weekend. Monmouth boasts a high-scoring offense that differs from Manhattan’s scrappy style of play that is not necessarily equipped for shootouts. The Jaspers’ defense can’t afford to let up with their blueprint for success being inducing turnovers and being aggressive on the boards.
In a conference that tends to shy away from lopsided victories, oftentimes the difference between winning and losing boils down to intangibles like effort and perseverance. By focusing on controlling what they can control, Manhattan’s surreptitious rise up the standings may start opening some eyes around the league if they can continue to build on their three-game winning streak.
“You can’t look ahead,” Masiello said on Friday night. “Control what we can control, follow the same protocols of rest and recovery and strategy. We’ve been talking a lot about response, not only to negative things, but also responding to success and good things.”