They’re here. Fortunately for us, in this case “they” doesn’t refer to malevolent spirits. Unfortunately for the teams of the MAAC, “they” refers to the Manhattan College Jaspers, who come with their own brand of vengeance.
Yes, those Jaspers. The ones who have won the MAAC tournament two years in a row and reached the finals three years running. In case you spent too much time this season caught up in Monmouth’s bench antics (and honestly, who hasn’t?), Steve Masiello’s squad provided a stiff wake up call. Their 78-71 victory over Monmouth Thursday night was ample reminder that they are still the defending two-time conference champions.
Despite their recent success, the Jaspers have somehow been overlooked this year. Sure, a lot of it had to do with Monmouth becoming a national story with wins over UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Iona, and more (all away from home) while Manhattan began the season 1-7. Then again, shouldn’t the first back-to-back MAAC championships since 2008-10 when Siena rolled off three straight count for something? Where’s the respect?
Well, the defending champions should begin to see some of that respect come their way after taking down the high-flying Hawks. In reality, Manhattan was just continuing a trend. The Jaspers improved to a perfect 5-0 against Monmouth on their home court at Draddy Gymnasium and have not lost to the Hawks since Monmouth joined the conference prior to the 2013-14 season.
Monmouth began Thursday’s meeting on fire, making five of their first six shots on their way to a 12 point lead just over four minutes in. However, from then on the Manhattan defense put the Hawks on ice. Monmouth made just four of their next 20 shots in the half and endured two separate stretches of over five and a half minutes without a field goal.
The Jaspers took a 36-30 lead into halftime and held the lead until a Justin Robinson free throw with 5:17 remaining handed the advantage back to the Hawks. With just under two minutes remaining, a Chris Brady layup gave Monmouth a 71-69 lead and kick started a small skirmish.
After Brady’s basket, the junior center flexed his muscles, which elicited a shove from Manhattan sophomore Zane Waterman. Players from both sides got heated, but unlike Monmouth’s last trip to New York, no physical altercation occurred. However, Manhattan walk-on Matt Maloney was ejected from the game for leaving the bench in an attempt to break up the scrum.
That layup would end up representing Monmouth’s final points of the game. The Jaspers closed the contest on a 9-0 run including a pair of 3-pointers and capped by a pair of free throws from RaShawn Stores.
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Here are three thoughts from Manhattan’s win over Monmouth:
1.) Thomas Capuano came up big for the Jaspers. Manhattan’s 5-11 freshman guard has been pressed into service early thanks to a rash of injuries suffered by the Jaspers early this year. Capuano averages 5.1 ppg this season, but came up with two plays in crunch time that helped seal the victory over Monmouth.
With just 28 seconds remaining in the game, Capuano nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner as the shot clock expired to bump Manhattan’s lead to five, the highest it had been in over six minutes.
“I knew they were going to jump the ball, so they were going to leave me at some point,” Capuano said. “Ray [Stores] just did a great job. He dribbled the ball for the whole possession, around everybody. He just found me late, and I was just able to knock it down.”
Capuano’s big shot wasn’t his last contribution of the night. With the help of Tyler Wilson, Capuano was able to strip the ball away from Monmouth’s Robinson on the next possession leading to Stores’ final free throws.
“It was Tyler who was dogging the ball and I’m just thinking ‘stop Justin Robinson.’” Capuano said. “Tyler spun him and he just lost the ball and I just dove on it. All the credit goes to Tyler on that one.”
2.) Steve Masiello is a big Justin Robinson fan. Robinson has shown himself to be one of the top players in the MAAC, but remains driven by the need to prove it on the court.
“I want to win in (Manhattan’s) Draddy Gym, I want to win at Iona, I want to beat them both here, I want to beat Quinnipiac because I haven’t beaten Quinnipiac yet,” Robinson told the Asbury Park Press’ Josh Newman this past offseason. “I want to win a MAAC championship and to win a MAAC championship, you have to go through whoever has been at the top of the league.”
Talk like that usually ends up on Masiello’s bulletin board. In fact, Manhattan’s coach did admit he used Robinson’s quotes as motivation for Thursday’s game, but remained adamant in his respect for Robinson’s game on and off the court.
“If Justin Robinson didn’t say those things, I’d be disappointed,” Masiello said. “We were saying those things three years ago. That’s what he should be saying. I think we sometimes punish people for saying what they really want. He wants to win a MAAC championship. He wants to win at Draddy. I have no issue with that.”
Following the postgame handshake line, Masiello caught up with Robinson at midcourt for a few moments more to provide further accolades.
“I just told him how big of a fan I am of his and what he’s accomplished this year,” Masiello said of that extra meeting. “’Just take it in stride, keep working hard, you’re one of the best players in this league, I’m really proud of you, I’m a fan of you when I’m not going against you.’ And I am. I think he’s a darn good player.”
3.) “It’s not the end of the world.” Seven simple words from Monmouth coach King Rice to bring about calm after his team’s loss. He continued, “There’s no doom and gloom. Steve’s a really good coach. I’ve been saying it all along, and tonight they got us.”
The story hanging over the Hawks since their early-season success has been their shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament should they fail to win the MAAC tournament in Albany. Prognosticators suggest a 16-17 win conference slate and a trip to at least the conference semifinals puts the Hawks in talks for a bid.
Only two MAAC teams have ever received at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament: Manhattan’s 1995 squad which went on to defeat Oklahoma in the first round, and the 2012 Iona team which fell to BYU in Dayton.
Masiello, who was never shy to declare Iona’s 2013-14 team should have received an at-large bid after his Jaspers defeated them in the MAAC championship game, firmly announced his support for Monmouth as an NCAA Tournament participant following Thursday’s game.
“They are a terrific basketball team, and they are definitely an NCAA team; one hundred percent,” Masiello said of Monmouth. “People sometimes get so stuck on the mid-major label. That’s a top 50, top 30 team on a given night. They’re the real deal.”
Of course, no one need worry about Monmouth’s at-large chances if the Hawks just win the MAAC tournament, difficult as it may be.
“Until you beat Manhattan in March, they’re the champs,” Rice reiterated. “We haven’t even won the regular season yet and everyone’s anointing things. Let’s just play the 20 [games] out, see where we’re standing, go up there [Albany] and see who comes out on top after three tough days.”
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.