Manhattan is officially on the board. The Jaspers earned their first conference victory with a 78-69 victory over Niagara Tuesday night at Draddy Gymnasium.
Steve Masiello’s crew clawed back from an 11-point deficit early in the second half to eventually push their own lead out to 11 in the waning seconds before a pair of Kahlil Dukes free throws resulted in the final margin.
The Jaspers faced their largest deficit with 16:01 remaining in the game, but over the next seven minutes rattled off a 20-6 run capped by a Calvin Crawford 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to grab a 57-54 lead with 9:01 remaining. Manhattan would never relinquish the lead from that point on.
Crawford, who missed Manhattan’s game against Fairfield Jan. 5 with an ankle injury and played just six minutes at Quinnipiac Jan. 7, joined junior Zavier Turner with 20 and 21 points respectively to become the first Jasper duo to eclipse the 20-point plateau in the same game since Crawford and Rich Williams notched 22 and 20 in a 79-70 loss to Monmouth on February 15, 2016.
Here are three thoughts from Tuesday night:
Calm, Cool, Collected – Trailing by double digits in the second half, the Jaspers were staring down an 0-6 start to MAAC play, uncharted territory for a squad which has claimed two of the last three conference championships. It would be easy to panic in such a situation, and Masiello himself admitted he might begin to worry – if these weren’t the Jaspers.
“I’m going to say this humbly, if I was everyone else I would panic if you’re 0-5,” Masiello said after the game. “We have the blueprint. Everyone else is still guessing with the exception of Tim Cluess. We know it; that’s all that matters. We’re fine, so we’re going to go day by day and get better. We know what it takes to get to the NCAAs. Everyone else is still guessing with the exception of Iona. We’ll be playing our best basketball come March, and that’s all that matters.”
To be fair, there are two other active MAAC coaches who have captured conference titles: John Dunne with Saint Peter’s in 2011 and Jimmy Patsos with Loyola (MD) in 2012.
Regardless, the point remains that the monkey is finally off Manhattan’s back, and no matter their record the Jaspers will never be a team anyone looks forward to playing so long as Masiello is at the helm. They do indeed have the blueprint and know how to get the job done when it counts.
The Return of Rich? – Another development that could prove a monumental boost to the Jaspers’ fortunes this season is the potential return of senior Rich Williams. The talented wing is far and away Manhattan’s best player when healthy, but has yet to see game action this season while nursing a knee injury.
However, Williams’ 2017 debut could be coming soon, as he recently returned to practice and has no physical restrictions holding him back.
“I’m going to talk with our AD and we’re going to talk with Rich a little bit and make some decisions,” Masiello said. “I thought the last two days of practice, he was arguably the best player on the court. He came back and has looked really good. He’s full-go right now. He could play. We’re going to have to make some decisions and see if he’s at 100% and where we are and try to make a team decision what’s best for the young man and what’s best for our program and the college.”
If Williams does not return this year, he would certainly receive a redshirt option for a fifth year of eligibility. The Jaspers have just two other seniors on the current roster: guard Tyler Wilson who averages 2.3 ppg and forward Sky Williams, who has notched just one career point.
With the rest of the roster set to return, the option to look ahead to next year and supplement that squad with a fully healthy Williams is certainly enticing, but there are still 14 games left in this season and a seemingly wide-open MAAC waiting to be won.
By the way, the Jaspers host local rival Iona next Tuesday night.
Mounting Minutes – Niagara’s lack of depth doomed them against the Jaspers, and may well prove to be a lingering issue as the season wears on. Four of the Purple Eagles’ starters logged 33 minutes or more Tuesday night, while the bench accounted for just seven points compared to Manhattan’s 28.
The quartet of Kahlil Dukes, Matt Scott, Marvin Prochet, and Dominic Robb have logged the lion’s share of minutes for the Purple Eagles during the conference slate. At least three of the four have logged 30+ minutes in each of the team’s first six MAAC contests. Meanwhile, their combined minutes have steadily increased in each of the last five conference games.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve had the bench out there a bunch and they’ve given us some really good minutes, and there’s been some games where the starters have given us more minutes,” head coach Chris Casey said after the game. “When we had that 10 point lead and they came back and took the lead, I just felt like we needed to have those [starters] in the game and we played them extended minutes for that portion of the game.”
If the Purple Eagles are able to get larger contributions from secondary players like freshmen Shane Gatling and James Towns, it would certainly go a long way toward pacing the starters through the gauntlet of the MAAC season.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.