by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor
The Manhattan Jaspers arrived in Albany with their biggest task of the season. Matched up with the first-place Siena Saints, the Jaspers entered without much to lose after hovering in the bottom tier of the MAAC standings in recent weeks.
The Jaspers did all that head coach Steve Masiello asked of them at the minimum. They played hard, kept a positive attitude, and didn’t make life easy for the Saints for good chunks of both games. In trying to shake off the rust from not playing a game in 13 days , there was plenty of good and bad on display from the Jaspers throughout the weekend series.
In the end, the Jaspers didn’t have any upset magic in their bones and were sent home victims of a sweep.
In theory, Manhattan would probably feel pretty good about their chances if you told them they would limit reigning MAAC Player of the Year Jalen Pickett to a combined 19 points in the two games. While Pickett was far from a non-factor, showing a knack for creating his own shots and serving as a facilitator, he didn’t look nearly the same player who won the conference’s most prestigious individual award a season ago. Opposed by Manhattan’s feisty guard duo of Ant Nelson and Samir Stewart, Pickett was held under check for both games, while likely still feeling the effects of an early-season injury.
Yet, that proved to be no problem for Siena, who were led by other top playmakers Manny Camper and Jackson Stormo, the latter of whom decisively won his matchup with Manhattan center Warren Williams.
In game one, both teams engaged in an offensive duel as the Saints came away with a narrow 74-69.
Manhattan, more known for their defensive stylings, are not thought of as a team with the offensive firepower to win a shootout. With that said, the Jaspers offense is night and day better when Ant Nelson is penetrating to the hoop or finding his stroke from outside with ease. Because when he gets hot, there may not be a tougher player to guard around the conference.
Nelson finished with 27 points and beat the Saints in a variety of ways, highlighted by his floater game and a few methodical drives to the hoop. On the strength of his 22 second-half points, Manhattan fought to within six four times after trailing by as much as 12 points.
But whenever Manhattan threatened to make a big run, the Saints responded with a couple momentum-shifting plays. Camper delivered the best highlight of the night by going coast to coast on a fastbreak before finishing it off with a thunderous one-handed dunk — counting the foul. Arguably good enough for ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 Plays, the dunk extended the lead back to 10 points with a little over five minutes left and set the Saints on a winning path.
How game one ended was also the latest reminder of how Manhattan’s struggles in crunchtime situations. Down by six with a little over a minute left, Manhattan let the shot clock fall to around 10 seconds before choosing to intentionally foul. Then, down by six again with 34 seconds left, Manhattan let 15 seconds elapse before intentionally fouling Jordan King, Siena’s top free throw shooter. At that point, the Jaspers couldn’t recover from their ambivalence to foul.
The element of physicality that infused game one resurfaced again in game two. Even with only seven scholarship players available to play, the Saints rolled to a 64-56 win despite trailing the Jaspers by six at halftime.
With the way Camper and Stormo ran rampant in the second half, it felt as if Siena won by a larger margin than they actually did. Both players helped spark Siena’s 12-0 run to start the second half and later played a hand in a 6-0 run that gave them the lead back permanently. Camper concluded with a career-high 25 points and nine rebounds, including going 12-of-14 from the free throw line which helped put the game out of reach down the stretch. Stormo added 18 points and two blocks to his name one day after scoring 13.
“We know what Manny [Camper] is about Stormo is a great complimentary piece for them,” Masiello said after game two. “You have to pick someone to beat you, you don’t want Jalen [Pickett] to and tonight Manny did and Stormo obviously had a big night.”
After leading by as much 10 in the first half, Manhattan’s game two performance was marred by a poor second half in which they shot 33 from the field and missed all nine of their three-point attempts. Credit to Siena’s defense, Manhattan didn’t have the same ball movement or shot selection like they did the night before, which contributed to Nelson and Williams combining for only 14 points. Eli Buchanan led the Jaspers with 18 points, but was 7-of-21 from the field.
“I thought we played well in both games, good enough to win,” Masiello said. “Just didn’t do some little things that we needed to do both nights to win, and they’re [Siena] too good and efficient that if you’re going to make mistakes they’re hard to beat.”
According to Masiello, despite the back-to-back format, Manhattan’s injury report gave him little choice but to play his starters for large minutes in game two, with Buchanan and Nelson playing 39 and 38 minutes, respectively. Jason Douglas-Stanley and Ebube Ebube were both out against Sena and are listed as day-to-day.
Manhattan’s last two regular season games are set to come at home on Mar. 4 and Mar. 5 against Fairfield (6-15, 6-10 MAAC). After that, all 11 MAAC teams will descend on Atlantic City for the 2021 Hercules Tires MAAC Men’s Basketball Tournament which starts on Monday, March 8 and runs through Thursday, March 13.