It’s been out with the old and in with the new for the Manhattan College men’s basketball team this season. But there was something familiar in open view on Friday night that had been a common sight at Draddy Gymnasium over the years.
Former Jaspers coach Steve Masiello was once again patrolling the sidelines at Draddy, albeit this time as an assistant on Rick Pitino’s Iona staff for the 103rd installment of the rivalry game.
In front of a sold-out crowd, Iona beat Manhattan 84-76 on Friday night behind a late run in overtime. Iona blew a 15-point lead with 16 minutes left as the Jaspers stormed all the way back in search of the upset bid, which included a defensive stand on Daniss’ Jenkins last shot in regulation.
The Jaspers couldn’t quite knock off their old coach and Iona, whose players have taken a liking to the beleaguered coach.
“That was for Masiello,” Iona senior Berrick JeanLouis said after the game.
The Gaels ultimately accomplished their mission, but the bigger story on the court was how the Jaspers competed with their backs against the wall.
The decision to replace Masiello with interim head coach RaShawn Stores convinced the pundits that Manhattan would free fall in the standings from the second-place spot garnered in the preseason poll. Without the preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year, Jose Perez, the most notable on-court departure from the Masiello firing who transferred to West Virginia, Manhattan has made a case that they still belong in the top half of the league.
The Jaspers have had some other veterans step up to pick up the slack in ways few could have predicted. Fifth-year players Josh Roberts, Samir Stewart and Ant Nelson have had increased opportunities to shine following the roster turnover. And while no team may be as athletic as Iona, Manhattan was able to even the playing field with their fight and heart.
From the outset, Manhattan made several turnovers that allowed Iona to build an early lead. The Gaels led by as many as 11 in the first half on the strength of play-making from Iona sophomore Walter Clayton Jr., who dropped 19 of his 21 points in the first half.
When Manhattan was slow on transition defense, Clayton Jr. made them pay. On defensive misreads for Jaspers, Clayton Jr. showed off his complete arsenal, hitting two threes. He had been sidelined due to injury for two weeks earlier in the month, but toughed it out on Friday night to be part of the rivalry game.
“The guts Walt had to play on one leg was pretty amazing,” Iona Head Coach Rick Pitino said, even dubbing Clayton Jr. his best freshman ever last season.
The first 20 minutes were an exhibition on how good Clayton Jr. could be, until the Manhattan zone defense changed the complexion of the game in the second half.
After Iona opened up their largest lead at 49-34 with 16 minutes left, Manhattan made a timely run to get back into it, adding the inevitable drama to the rivalry game.
The Jaspers outscored Iona 14-2 over the next five and half minutes to cut the Gaels lead to three and set up the sprint to the finish.
The tide turned with a three from Nick Brennen before freshman James Jewell added two baskets, and Roberts pulverized the rim with a dunk off a feed from Nelson in between all of it.
Jewell was not even on the roster until December when he announced his commitment out of Southern California Academy. On Friday night, Jewell introduced himself in style with 10 points in extended minutes.
“You guys don’t know what to expect from him, but we know what we got in that locker room,” Stores said of the 6-foot-6 Jewell. “He’s a high school kid coming in mid year who needs to get stronger, but look, his teammates love him and that’s the most important thing.”
Manhattan had to stare down another deficit later on, this time down by seven points with 4:53 left after a foul and finish by JeanLouis.
That’s when Stewart came alive in the biggest game of his five-year career.
His first three cut the Iona lead to two at the 6:34 mark of the second half, and then he followed a layup from Marques Watson by hitting his second triple to cut it back to two. Stewart then added two more free throws to knot the score at 63 apiece with 1:56 left.
When Iona went up 68-65 on a three with 36 seconds left, an unfazed Stewart soared for a game-tying three-pointer in the corner off a drive and kick from Brennen.
The place erupted in pandemonium as Manhattan inched ever so closer to extending their win streak to two games over their arch nemesis before falling short of that reality.
“To see the Sixth Borough, the dance team, the cheerleaders come together and support these young men, that’s what it’s about,” the 31-year-old Stores said. “It’s not about anything else but them tonight.”
In overtime, Watson, who finished with 10 points, opened the scoring for Manhattan with a layup. Iona answered with a 9-0 run, capped off by a three from JeanLouis, that proved to be the difference.
JeanLouis had one of the dunks of the year in the final minute of the first half when he dribbled half the length of the court and soared for a poster dunk on Roberts. The play was named No. 3 on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays the next day.
As for Stewart, he had been in the transfer portal for a couple months before committing back to Manhattan for one last season. He has battled injuries as well, including missing his last two games, before leading his team with 18 points against Iona. Stewart is now having his best season by averaging 14.9 points on 38 percent shooting from the three-point ring.
“I won two championships so I’m trying to get him there,” Stores joked when asked about how much of himself he sees in Stewart. “I see his leadership, he makes big shots, and he’s trying to defend.”
The Draddy crowd exploded in a way that was years in the making for Stewart’s game-tying three in regulation. Stores said he had not heard that much noise from the Manhattan crowd since he was part of the teams that won back-to-back MAAC Championships in 2014 and 2015, coached by none other than Masiello.
“What went on here [at Manhattan] is the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Pitino said. “It’s bizarre what happened. It’s a shame. But you’ve gotta give them all the credit in the world for the way they’re fighting. Great crowd, great atmosphere. Manhattan deserves a lot of credit.”