At the very least, Friday night probably spells the end for Steve Masiello’s red suit jacket.
The normally impeccably dressed Masiello will seemingly try anything these days to change his team’s luck, especially after losing on a 75-foot shot last week at George Mason, even donning a checkered red suit jacket that he previously wore at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off dinner two weeks ago.
But in the MAAC opener, it was previously offensively challenged Fairfield that exploded in the second half and left the Jaspers at 1-5 (and more importantly 0-1 in the MAAC) with a surprisingly comfortably 67-54 win at Webster Bank Arena.
“That’s kind of been the thing for us this year, teams shooting the ball well against us, but give them credit,” Manhattan coach Steve Masiello said. “They made shots and there’s something to be said for that.”
The Stags (3-5, 1-0) – whose only win in their last six games was an overtime victory over South Dakota – started where they left off in a brutal overtime loss to Bucknell, missing their first 10 shots from the field and 15 of their first 16, which was frustrating but not shocking, considering Fairfield was shooting 38.7% from the field for the season.
What was shocking was when Marcus Gilbert ended that drought with a putback tip-in, it gave Fairfield a 10-9 lead with 8:16 left in the first half, even though it was just 2-of-17 from the field. That wasn’t a good omen for the Jaspers. A minute later, Gilbert has a massive dunk (posterizing poor Shane Richards) that put the Stags back ahead. They wouldn’t trail again.
“On Monday against Bucknell, we had a good 35 minutes and then the poor five at the end cost us,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “Tonight, we got those bad five minutes out of the way at the beginning (Fairfield trailed 8-1 early).”
The Stags were able to score the last four points of the first half to lead 27-22 and the second half, at least offensively, belonged to Marcus Gilbert, who scored eight points in a three-minute span (a pair of three-pointers sandwiched around another dunk) as the Stag lead ballooned to 40-24 and forcing Masiello to use a time out with 15:44 left.
Manhattan, especially with Fairfield’s confidence in closing out games not exactly running high, looked like it had a run or two in it, getting to within eight at 44-36 with 8:30 left, but Gilbert answered with a three-pointer and the game was never in single digits again.
“We had some tough games against good teams,” Marcus Gilbert – who finished with a game-high 24 points – said. “We had to learn from those, and we came out tonight and left our hearts out there.”
The Stags shot an eye-popping 10-for-15 from the field in the second half (they were 9-for-39 for the entire game in a home loss to Wofford two weeks ago), and have the athletes and size in players such as Amadou Sidibe (who has not a big factor Friday), Mike Kirkland, and Malcolm Gilbert to battle on the boards and protect the rim. Junior Steve Johnston came off the bench to score 15 points, while point guard K.J. Rose had three steals and five assists against only a single turnover.
Fairfield wants to put to rest the stench of last season’s 7-25 hiccup, the first time the Stags had a losing record in the MAAC (4-16) since 2005-06 and only the second time this century. A 2-5 start didn’t exactly convert many skeptics, but now they’re 1-0 heading up I-95 for an interesting tilt with Quinnipiac on Sunday.
“We coached them pretty hard the last three days,” Johnson said. “They responded, and I’m really proud of them tonight. I can’t stress it enough, we’re going to be better than last year.”
Ironically, one of those seven wins last season was in Bridgeport over Manhattan, as Fairfield stunned the Jaspers last January, 71-67.
That obviously turned out to be a blip for Masiello and his team, but it remains to be seen what happens in 2014-15, which is starting to look suspiciously like 2012-13 (which, to be fair, saw Manhattan eventually play in the MAAC title game). There are still more questions than answers for the Jaspers, whose biggest positive was Ashton Pankey, who took advantage of the fact that Fairfield clearly was not going to help off of Shane Richards or Emmy Andujar to double him to score a career-high 23 points. Masiello also got Jermaine Lawrence (10 minutes) back for the first time since the season opener against Florida St., and Zane Waterman made his collegiate debut (6 minutes).
But the Jaspers didn’t get much from Andujar (10 points, nine rebounds) until the game was already decided, and Richards is clearly a marked man. He tried to shoot his way out of it, but finished with just eight points on 1-of-6 shooting. Manhattan turned the ball over 21 times in a game that was not played at an exceptional pace, with Tyler Wilson being credited with eight of them in 29 minutes of action.
Even with the game decided, Masiello continued to foul in order to give his team more opportunities to try to work through their offense and practice end-of-game situations, which became slightly contentious when Johnston was injured while fouled with 30 seconds remaining, but Johnston quickly got up and Masiello finally called off the dogs for good.
Even worse, Wilson and Richards suffered minor injuries in the contest, and while both finished, it doesn’t bode well when another conference game in less than 48 hours. Luckily for the Jaspers, it’s against hobbled Marist, who will be without two, and perhaps three, starters (and arguably their three best players).
“We start to get guys back like Jermaine and Zane, who haven’t had many days of practice, so you think you’re going forward,” Masiello said. “Then Shane and Tyler go down, and we don’t have RaShawn Stores. That is what college basketball is all about. Marist is dealing with it. We have to figure it out. No one is going to give us any sympathy points, especially after last year. But we have 23 more opportunities to figure it out.”