By Caroline McCarthy, Sports Editor
Rick Pitino sat with his hands folded and his head low at the post-game press conference. He only took one question, then declined any further interviews.
“I’m very very disappointed in my team,” Pitino said. “But we don’t have a lot of time to lament on that, we have to get ready for the MAAC.”
The Manhattan Jaspers earned one of the biggest upsets of the season, beating the first-seed Iona Gaels 74-72 in the final seconds this Thursday, March 3. The Jaspers, ranked second to last in the MAAC prior to their win, were not expecting victory that night. Yet, with the seats of Draddy completely filled – some by Jaspers and most by visiting Iona fans – the team stepped up in the most high-energy game of the season.
“We’ve got to give Manhattan all the credit,” Pitino said. “You’re a .500 team that played your asses off tonight. We just give them all the credit in the world for beating us…We know who we are. We’re not great basketball, we are a hard-working team. And they outworked us on the backboard in key moments.”
Pitino credited senior Jose Perez for the Jasper win, saying the Gaels deserved the loss because of mistakes made by their defense.
“We are not supposed to leave our feet at any point because he [Perez] fakes, fakes, fakes, but Quinn [Slazinki] left his feet,” Pitino said. “That’s an undisciplined move by our defense, and we deserve to lose it by being undisciplined.”
Perez’s iconic final shot gave the Jaspers a 2 point lead with 1.9 seconds left. Taking the ball up the court, Perez pump-faked before stepping through past Iona guard Quinn Slazinski for the floater.
“Big players make big plays. Because I’m a big player, the coach trusts me to put the ball in my hands when the time is running down, ” Perez said. “And I was in crunch time, I’ve been slagging and no place to do it other than I guess Iona.”
Throughout the game, Perez scored 27 of the Jaspers’ 74 points. Key scorers for the Jaspers also included Samba Diallo and Marques Watson, both with 13 points. Despite the exciting ending, the Jaspers spent most of the game on the offensive side, holding the lead for over 34 minutes of the game. Iona led for just less than one minute.
“What I was proud of is when [Iona] took the lead, we stayed poised, we stuck to our execution, stuck to our strategy and our defensive,” Coach Masiello said. “And we didn’t go for the home run, we just chipped away, chipped away, did what we needed to and I thought tonight we showed great toughness.”
Masiello, having played for and coached under Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky and as an assistant coach at the University of Lousiville from 2005-2011, knows the level of intensity and strategy of Iona’s team well.
“[Pitino] is a Hall of Fame coach, they have big-time players, you’re not gonna get it up to 50 and expect they’re not gonna respond,” Masiello said. “We know how good they are. They’re one of the best mid-majors in the country. They’ve accomplished a lot and what we saw tonight is, you know, we’re just as good as anyone when we’re locked in the right way mentally.”
The Jaspers led 40-31 at the half with Perez leading in points and Warren Williams leading in essential rebounds. The Jaspers had a 15 point lead early in the second half, which soon dwindled until the teams tied three different times in the last two minutes of play.
The Jaspers entered the final two minutes leading at 68-66. Tyson Jolly had a put-back dunk on his own missed jump shot, tying the Gaels and the Jaspers at 68.
The teams had competing foul shots – with both Perez and Iona player Walter Clayton Jr. scoring 2 points each. The Jaspers and Gaels were tied again with 1:06 left on the clock. Roberts scored a third-chance shot for the Jaspers with 0:46 seconds left, only for the Gaels to return with a jump shot by Elijah Joyner. Tied with 0:31 seconds left, Manhattan had possession and Perez took matters into his own hands.
“I tend to see everything that people critique about me,” Perez said. “So I try to like when I’m playing, I try to cut all the critiques out. I know all the work I’ve put in, what it takes. I do believe that I’m one of the best players, if not the best player in the league. And coach tells me that all the time.”
Masello interrupts, “You’re the best in the country.”
Perez continues, “So I try to be the best of my ability. And we just got to go down to Atlantic City and win four in a row. We’ve done it before. And all it takes is four to get to the big dance.”
After Perez’s winning floater, Dylan van Eyck made a last-ditch effort for the Gaels, but couldn’t sink the three-pointer. Draddy Gymnasium went wild as the Jaspers were named victorious.
This made Masiello wonder what the season could have been if the student turnout was always as prevalent as it was on Thursday.
“I was very disappointed in our student turnout this year. And I am the biggest supporter of the Sixth Borough,” Masiello said. “We’re a basketball school. Our biggest, best years of enrollment are when the men’s basketball team has success and goes to the tournament. Men’s Basketball can change all the issues and when we understand that here at this college, it’s going to be a lot better for us. That’s going to put light on what a great engineering department we have, the O’Malley Library to Kelly Commons. Tonight’s crowd should be every night.”
The Jaspers now have to wait for standings to be finalized as they approach the MAAC championships next week. Despite the loss, Iona stands at number one while the Jaspers have moved up to 7th in the league. Other schools’ competitions continue until Saturday, March 5 before the tournament on the 8th.
“I don’t lose my confidence. We don’t lose our confidence. It’s a matter of going out and executing,” Masiello said. “I know what I’m doing. He knows what he’s doing. And the other 12 guys know what they’re doing. It’s a matter of us doing it. So for me, I’m not hoping anything. I’m expecting it. And it’s a matter of us cutting the nonsense out and stop being immature, and play like 22-year-old men.”
Lauren Raziano contributed to reporting.