Steve Masiello cut down the nets after his second straight MAAC title Monday night. But what a long, strange trip he took in between.
You can say what you want about Masiello, and plenty have over the last 12 months since Masiello took the head coaching job at South Florida, it was revealed he never got a degree, and the Jaspers eventually rehired him, but as far as coaching in big games, you have to say he’s been nothing short of brilliant.
Third-seeded Manhattan got the best of No. 1 Iona once again, a masterful 79-69 performance at the Times-Union Center in Albany that went almost exactly according to the script Masiello had laid out, and avenging two regular season losses in the process.
Emmy Andujar did his usual, scoring 18 points and adding 11 rebounds, but it was two other unlikely stars that stole the show. Senior Donovan Kates had only one three-pointer in his previous 12 games, but when Iona’s scouting report left him unguarded, he drilled four (on six attempts).
“It’s one of those things that you have to take something away from the other team, and with the size they have, we had to help off of Kates,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “When their fifth option hits all of those shots …. we tried to adjust, but it was too late.”
Said Kates: “Coaches told me to keep shooting. My team had confidence in me, how could you not have confidence in yourself?”
And a day after Iona hit 19 three-pointers in annihilating Monmouth in the semifinals, Masiello’s plan was simple: Extend his zone to a fairly ridiculous length and leave junior center Ashton Pankey on an island. It was a risky strategy with Pankey Island facing MAAC Player of the Year David Laury one-on-one for most of the evening. But Pankey, who struggled as his team did in the early part of the season, was equal to the task. Laury finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds, but never dominated the game the way the Gaels (26-8) would have hoped, and Iona went just from 5-22 behind the three-point arc, almost all of them contested. Pankey also added 21 points and 10 rebounds for good measure to earn the MAAC tournament MVP trophy.
But the MVP for drawing up gameplans may have belonged to point guard RaShawn Stores.
“It’s a proud moment for me, but this is about my players,” Masiello said. “RaShawn Stores grabbed my last night and he literally came up with the scheme on how to play the game, and that’s not an exaggeration. He told me he wanted to fan out, not trap David (Laury), plays single coverage (with Pankey) and see how they played it. He’s going to be a superstar in this coaching business.”
Manhattan led by as much as 11 in the first half, but Iona came back to take the briefest of leads, 52-51 with 10:51 left in the game. But as they have in big games under Masiello the last few years, the Jaspers (19-13) did not wilt, and Emmy Andjuar – whom Masiello touted as underrated all year long – stuck it to the critics when it mattered most.
“Everybody was against us. That’s how we came up with ’22 Strong’, 22 of us together, to the coaches, to the staff, to the managers, they were the ones that believed in us,” Andujar said. “It felt like everybody was against us, but now we’re champions again.”
It was another bitter pill to swallow for Iona, who will get to play in the NIT for the second straight season, but that’s small consolation to a group who dominated the MAAC for much of the season, even without junior Isaiah Williams. Manhattan’s unusual defense baffled them and Laury had no help down low to deal with the duo of Pankey and Andujar. AJ. English (2-8) and Williams (1-7) combined to shoot 3-15 from three-point range and scored just 15 points.
In addition to the pair of MAAC title wins over Iona, Masiello (as a No. 13 seed) nearly upset Louisville in last year’s NCAAs and made a run to the 2013 MAAC title game with a team that was racked by injuries and finished the regular season just 12-17. And even then, the Jaspers had a chance to tie late before falling 60-57 to Iona.
Manhattan and Masiello will have their work cut out for them this season. A mediocre record and low RPI may see them as a No. 16 or No. 15 seed (and an outside shot to head to Dayton for a play-in game).
But Monday night, that is the least of the worries for the Jaspers and their fans, who hadn’t won more than 16 games in the last seven seasons before Masiello arrived in Riverdale.
Now they’re back-to-back MAAC champions.
“It’s the greatest feeling of my life,” Masiello said. “It’s been probably the hardest year of my life. Cream rises. This program rose above a lot of things. These guys and this program took the high road. I’m the luckiest coach in college basketball to have these kids.”