by, Pete Janny & Whit Anderson, Sports Editor & Staff Writer
The saying “defense wins championships” is always incomplete without the finisher “offense wins games.”
At this stage in the MAAC season, the thought of a championship is premature for any team considering there’s still over a month left of regular season basketball. The more logical concern is finding ways to win games; no matter what it takes. But that’s easier said than done when shots aren’t falling to the degree the Manhattan men’s basketball team experienced this past weekend against Saint Peter’s in Jersey City. When it rains it pours, and that was the lasting sentiment for Manhattan in light of being swept by Saint Peter’s.
Manhattan hasn’t won games this season because of the way their offense has performed. Instead, it’s been a total commitment to their principles on the defense end for the reason why they owned a solid 4-4 ledger in conference play before playing the Peacocks, a program whose success stems from doing the dirty work as well.
It’s no secret that the decisive factor for this series was which offense would stay afloat for longer stretches in the game. Almost by default, Saint Peter’s offense settled that debate, oftentimes parlaying strong defense on one end into points on the other despite their own fair share of problems with offensive execution over the weekend. Far from a prolific offensive attack, the Peacocks, however, did show adaptability across both games to overcome the Jaspers’ stout defense.
On Friday night, it was the three-point shooting that gave the Peacocks an edge over the Jaspers. Saint Peter’s shot 47 percent (8-of-17) from long range, compared to Manhattan’s 29 percent (5-of-17), and three of those came as part of a 15-2 scoring run that permanently changed the complexion of the game in favor of the Peacocks. Some of those big threes throughout proved to be important insurance for Saint Peter’s at the end of the game, when Manhattan retaliated with a surprising 10-0 run that shrunk the deficit to three in the final minute before the Peacocks iced the game from the free throw line to secure a 59-55 victory.
In game two, the Peacocks’ modus-operandi for getting points was pounding the ball inside to bigs KC Ndefo and Fousseyni Drame.
The constant pressure applied by Saint Peter’s down low eventually tired out Warren Williams late in the second half and opened the path to a 68-54 victory for the Peacocks. Williams would go on to foul out, while the Peacocks put the finishing touches on their 30-16 and 14-11 advantages in points in the paint and offensive rebounding respectively. Another crucial difference was the free throw disparity as the Peacocks took 32 attempts compared to Manhattan’s 16.
“Yesterday we got to the line more times so I thought that was the difference in the game,” Masiello told the Quad during a postgame interview on Saturday night.
The Jaspers lead the MAAC in offensive rebounding, but of all the teams they’ve played none compare to the length and ferocity that Saint Peter’s brings to the table.
“When I watched the film, I feel like we didn’t go for it for whatever reason,” Masiello said about his team’s lack of offensive rebounds in the series. “You have to give the other team credit, but I didn’t think they really did anything that should have stopped us from going.”
Manhattan entered the series ranked last in the MAAC in both field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage, and couldn’t do anything against Saint Peter’s to counteract that stigma. That much was shown in how the Jaspers fared in all of the main three shooting phases — 33 percent for two-point FGs, 28 percent for three-point FGs, and 61 percent from the free throw line.
In a season with far too many shooting stupors, this series looks to have been the perfect storm and hence a dire wake up call to the personnel to make the necessary changes before it’s too late. Despite only shooting 27 percent from three this season, the Jaspers still have a tendency of being too three-point happy at the expense of not getting enough baskets in the paint.
Samir Stewart came to play right from the start of game two, but was the only one who got the memo apparently.
Stewart scored the Jaspers opening 11 points of the game by hitting his first four shots, three of which were threes, to give Manhattan a 16-9 lead. However, the Jaspers’ couldn’t fully capitalize on Saint Peter’s slow start, and besides Stewart the rest of the team shot 2-of-14 over that same time span. The Peacocks would close the first half on a 21-8 run to seize an eight-point lead at the break and begin the uphill battle for the Jaspers.
Manhattan made a conscious effort to get Stewart more shots in the second game after he scored 10 points on only seven shots in the opener. In need of a spark, Stewart had his best two-game stretch of the season and likely saved his team from getting blown out in game two. Since coming back from an injury that sidelined him for over a month, Stewart has played six games and is averaging 11 points in those contests.
Overall, the guard play for Manhattan has regressed in recent games and that recent trend continued against the Peacocks. Outside of Stewart, the Jaspers offered minimal firepower from the guard position, with starters Eli Buchanan and Ant Nelson combining to shoot an ugly 4-of-28 for 11 points in game two.
“It’s just about good shot selection and taking what the defense gives us,” Masiello said.
In particular, Nelson’s performance has fallen off in a big way since starting off the season as Manhattan’s top weapon. The heralded transfer from Seton Hall averaged 20 points-per-game in the first four games, but has regressed to 10 points on 25 percent shooting from the field in the last seven contests.
“I think a lot of it is decision making,” Masiello said about Nelson’s recent struggles. “He’s not reading defenses well right now. He’s pressing a little bit and missing easy looks. It’s really important to have that next play mentality.”
The match-up between Warren Williams and KC Ndefo of Saint Peter’s was one of the biggest storylines on paper heading into the series, and it lived up to the hype.
After going 5-of-11 from the free throw line in game one, Williams was more efficient in the second game, scoring 13 points on 66 percent (4-of-6) from the field. He combined with Stewart to score 31 of Manhattan’s 54 points in game two, while also adding 11 rebounds to his name for a double-double.
Ndefo, the reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year, was more effective in game two scoring 13 points. A key for Ndefo was staying out of foul trouble, which relegated him to the bench for a large portion of the first half in game one. Ndefo and the Peacocks seemed to turn the corner in the series during the second half of game one, in which Ndefo blocked three shots in 45 seconds in one stretch. Ndefo leads the country in blocks with 4.1 per game and added nine more to his record against Manhattan, including six in game one.
Manhattan’s next series will be at home against Monmouth (8-5, 8-4 MAAC) on Friday, Feb. 6 and Saturday, Feb. 7 with tip-off slated for 9 pm on both nights. Friday’s game will be Manhattan’s first time on national television this season and will be aired on the cable channel ESPNU. Saturday night’s game can be streamed on ESPN3 without a subscription.