by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor
Playing the same team three times in a row is not ideal. In the case of Manhattan and Fairfield, they had no choice but to lace up their sneakers one final time this season in the bloodbath that is the opening round of the MAAC tournament.
After splitting last week at Draddy Gym, it was the Stags who came up with the biggest win of them all, beating the Jaspers in overtime despite Ethan Lasko canning an NBA three-pointer with 0.2 seconds left in regulation that temporarily saved Manhattan’s season. Lasko’s late-game heroics coupled with the Jaspers’ run of success over the Stags in recent seasons made this one an instant classic in the all-time series between the schools.
On Tuesday night, Fairfield looked like an entirely different team from the version that lit the Jaspers up for 85 points last Friday night at Draddy.
The Stags were a step too slow defensively and their missed shots piled up in the first half. As the half progressed, the tide started to turn in Manhattan’s favor, with the Jaspers beginning to play at a faster pace. Led by Ant Nelson and Warren Williams, Manhattan started exploiting holes in the paint that were left open by Fairfield. Despite their own deficiencies too, the Jaspers went into halftime with a nine-point lead, up 25-16.
But only 20 minutes away from their third win over Fairfield in the MAAC tournament in as many years, the Jaspers couldn’t stave off the Stags.
Fairfield rattled off ten unanswered points to tie the game at 29 with 12:05 left. A little over two minutes later, a layup from Taj Benning gave Fairfield their first lead since leading 4-3 in the opening minutes.
With Manhattan in need of a spark plug, Samba Diallo continued his strong play by dropping 13 points and 11 rebounds, particularly shining when running the floor in transition. Before Fairfield’s game-changing 10-0 run, Diallo showed off his elite athleticism by throwing down a ferocious dunk to extend the Manhattan lead to 10 early in the second half. And if not for a few timely baskets from Diallo throughout the second half, the Stags may have been able to put together even larger scoring runs.
Prior to Lasko’s memorable shot, the Jaspers only made one three, which came from Samir Stewart to open the game. On the night, Manhattan shot 2-of-18 from three, marking a dubious downgrade from their 26 percent clip during the regular season and representing the epitaph of their performance.
Given their struggles, it was almost improbable that the Jaspers were able to force overtime and extend their season temporarily.
Fairfield would score the opening five points in overtime to put the pressure back on Manhattan. However, with time running out for another comeback, the Jaspers found new life when Wojcik missed four straight free throws despite shooting 85 percent from the charity stripe this season.
Manhattan’s final possession in overtime came down by one with 10 seconds left, and that’s where the road officially ended.
The final play appeared to be drawn up for Nelson before ending up in the hands of Lasko again, whose shot missed. At last, Fairfield had escaped and were on to the quarterfinals to face Monmouth.
According to Masiello, the locker room was “tough” after the game, calling on the players and coaches to accept accountability and promise to come back better.
“It was a tough locker room, the guys were pretty down,” Masiello said. “My message to them was, ‘this is life, fellas.’ Not everything’s going to go your way. What are you going to do right now? Are you going to sulk, blame people, hang your heads, or are you going to get back to work and get better?”
Williams fouled out with a few minutes left in regulation but was efficient once again with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. After the game, Masiello expressed regret for not finding a way to get Williams more shots.
“Warren only had six field goal attempts so we have to find him a little more in situations and we didn’t do a good enough job of that,” Masiello said in a Zoom interview with reporters after the game.
Even under duress, Nelson still turned in an inspiring performance—16 points and 11 rebounds—to close out his first season at Manhattan. His job wasn’t made any easier by fellow guards Samir Stewart and Eli Buchanan going a combined 4-of-23 from the field, as well as 1-of-10 from three for Stewart.
The Jaspers’ loss came despite advantages in rebounding, turnovers, blocks, steals, assists, points in the paint and points off turnovers. As has been a theme this season, Manhattan was held back by their three-point shooting with Fairfield hitting five to the Jaspers’ two. Free-throwing shooting came back to haunt the Jaspers as well. They went 12-of-21, good for 57 percent.
Manhattan finishes the season 7-13 for their sixth straight losing season—all of which have come under Masiello—and have a record of 68-109 since winning the second of their MAAC Championships in 2015. Since inking Masiello to a contract extension through 2022-2023 in February 2020, Manhattan has gone 9-22 and failed to get past the quarterfinals in the MAAC tournament.
The sum of the finalists’ seeds is 16, proving just how wide open the field was this year for lower seeds like the Jaspers. Consequently, Manhattan will be thinking about what could have been this offseason following their deflating loss to Fairfield, who advanced all the way to the finals to play a Rick Pitino-led Iona team.
During the collegial exchange with reporters, a stoic Masiello was quick to compliment his players and the entire cohort of student-athletes for the sacrifices made this COVID season. There with them every step of the way, Masiello spoke about the character it required for them to stay the course of this unprecedented season.
“Things didn’t always go their way, (but) they showed up,” Masiello said. “They didn’t play on Zoom calls. They were there on the front line every day doing the work, and I have a lot of respect for all the kids and student-athletes that sacrificed to play basketball and do something they love, so kudos to them. I want them to look everyone in their eyes, I want them to hold their heads high, I want them to be proud of who they are and what they are, and the job they did.”