DAYTON, Ohio – As Manhattan struggled out of the gate Tuesday night as a fairly heavy favorite (nine points in Vegas), it seemed like a matter of time before its pressure and experience would wear down Hampton.
At halftime, with the Jaspers down seven, things still seemed theirs for the taking, after all, their two top scorers, Emmy Andujar and Ashton Pankey, had missed a good portion of the half in foul trouble. The Pirates weren’t turning it over necessarily, but there were more than a few near-misses, balls that momentarily got loose or forced time outs.
Manhattan got within three, then one, then four again late, and each time it looked like Hampton might break.
But they never did.
In the end, Hampton led start to finish in a 74-64 win that brought a tough and seemingly premature end to the season for the MAAC tournament champions, and it will be the Pirates – who finished just sixth in the MEAC regular season and played without leading scorer and rebounder Dwight Meikle – who will play the ultimate David against Goliath Kentucky Thursday night.
“I mean, I thought we fought,” Manhattan coach Steve Masiello said. “It’s just we’d get a turnover then have a 3-on-1 and Emmy turns it right back over and they get a three-point play out of it. I think we might have pressed a bit too much, not defensively, but ourselves. But that’s what this tournament does to you. And this tournament, I’ve seen it do it to a lot of very good teams that I’ve been a part of where it can change your identity, not intentionally.”
Hampton entered 16th in adjusted tempo, and clearly wanted to attack Manhattan (19-14) pressure from the opening tip. The Pirates didn’t look completely confident getting through it, but when they did, they often had good looks at the basket and hit enough of them to grab an early lead.
“With teams that press us, I teach to attack the press,” Hampton coach Edward Joyner, Jr. – who later in the press conference called Jesus for help against Kentucky – said. “I don’t like to hold it back. We’re going to attack it and we’re going to try to score. We didn’t mind playing that way. We wanted to be quick, but not in a hurry.”
Down 33-26 at the half but with Pankey and Andujar returning, the Jaspers got to within 46-45 on a Pankey layup (after he had briefly gone out injured) with 13:45 left. But he picked up his fourth foul just 10 seconds later and the momentum, for the time being at least, was gone.
Two minutes later, a Shane Richards (17 pts, but just 4-14 from three-point range) three got Manhattan within 51-48 with 8:45 left, but again Manhattan couldn’t quite climb that hill. They had one more chance late in the game, as Hampton finally looked ready to crack in the closing minutes (they finished with 14 turnovers, nine in the second half). But the Pirates – who by this point were playing without Tennessee transfer Quinton Chievous (15 pts, 13 rebs), who left with an ankle injury – did enough to not turn it over and made at least a few free throws (finished 19-34, but at one point was 9-21) to seal the deal.
“We got a little shaky there at the end, but luckily we made some big shots to kind of get separation,” Joyner said. “So when we did make three or four turnovers, we were able to withstand. Okay, everybody said Manhattan was a better team and that’s fine, but we had to be better. We were better for 40 minutes tonight.”
It was a bitter end to the season not only for Manhattan, but for the MAAC, which was not strong to begin with (just 19th in latest KenPom rankings), and will not have a team in the final 64 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever (this was the third time the MAAC champ got sent to Dayton and it had won the previous two).
With the Masiello-Kentucky connections, the conference at least would have gotten a couple of days of good publicity heading into that game, even if it would have been fairly unrealistic to expect the Jaspers to compete with the monster that is Kentucky (and add the fact that regular season champ Iona was blown out by Rhode Island in the NIT as well).
Masiello refused to blame the possible meeting with his alma mater as a diversion.
“I don’t think it was distracting at all,” Masiello said. “I mean, we fought our normal protocol of how we prepare. So, no, I don’t think we were distracted.”
The Jaspers attempted 25 three-pointers (making just six) and turned the ball over 17 times (21.8%) over 78 possessions, which tied for the second-fastest game they played this season.
It was the final collegiate game for RaShawn Stores, Andujar, and Donovan Kates, 60% of the starting lineup Wednesday, which means some work for Manhattan to do in the offseason. Pankey being limited to only 16 minutes against Hampton was particularly difficult, it exposed the middle and let Chievous do pretty much whatever he pleased.
The future will be kinder to this Manhattan team, who played excellent basketball at the end of the season and earned their MAAC tournament title. But on this night, although Hampton played very well, it’s still a loss to an extremely shorthanded .500 MEAC team to end their journey.
“We can sit here and give all the theories you want,” Masiello said. “We lost. There’s nothing anyone can say that is going to make us feel better about this loss. Even if we came out, shot terrific, played with more energy, we still lost. I don’t feel good about that. My guys don’t feel good about that. There’s no rationale that’s going to justify a loss this time of year. That’s part of the game. That’s part of the madness.”
Steve Masiello hugs Emmy Andujar for the last time as he comes out with seconds left.
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on