For seniors, it’s now or never. All the work that goes into competing for a championship comes down to one last run of 40 minutes.
That’s the experience the Manhattan College women’s team had last week, but short of the result they wanted. On MAAC Championship Saturday, the Jaspers were not primed for the upset over the top-seeded Iona Gaels, losing 73-60 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Sometimes it takes one surge to create separation, which held true for Iona and their 16-2 run in the third quarter which helped bury the Jaspers. Playing in their fourth game in five days, the Manhattan offense came up empty against the rival Gaels, after dropping a season-high 81 points on Niagara in a 13-point victory in the semifinal round.
Manhattan was winless in six tries in the regular season against the squads they played in the quarterfinals and beyond. However, that path simply added fuel to the fire on their way to getting revenge on Niagara and, before that, Quinnipiac in the quarterfinals.
“You can’t beat a team three times so you have to work on something,” Senior Brazil Harvey-Carr said, with an ode to the Jaspers’ adaptability.
Manhattan raised the defensive intensity in the 50-43 win over Quinnipiac. The Jaspers held the Bobcats to six points in the fourth quarter, along with 17 points in total for the second half.
“Our defensive principles have been our DNA all season,” Senior Dee Dee Davis said. “We pride ourselves on defense and rebounding.”
The offensive eruption against Niagara was a credit to Harvey-Carr’s 27 points. Similar to her starting out perfect on her first four threes in the opening round, Harvey-Carr sent a message to the Purple Eagles early by hitting five threes in the first half.
“Brazil has been one of our primary kids since she stepped foot on campus two years ago,” Manhattan Head Coach Heather Vulin said of the six-foot-one forward who transferred from the University of Rhode Island. “It was a great start for her.”
Niagara punched back by scoring the first nine points of the fourth quarter to regain a one-point lead. But once again, the Manhattan players were up for the task and refused to go home.
They outscored Niagara 24-10 over the last six and a half minutes to ensure a runner-up finish at the minimum.
“They weren’t worried about winning the game,” Vulin said. “They were worried about winning the next play.”
It’s tough for Vulin to ask for more from her players. After a near heartbreak against 11-seeded and winless Saint Peter’s, Manhattan got hot and rode their winning ways to a second straight appearance in the MAAC Championship. As the six-seeded team, the Jaspers became the lowest seed ever to advance to the title game on the strength of team play.
Different key players stepped up when the Jaspers needed them the most, embracing the survive and advance mantra of March basketball. The assembly line work for the Jaspers was instrumental in overcoming halftime deficits in each of the first three games.
The showdown with Saint Peter’s was too close for comfort, but provided the wake up call. Towson graduate transfer Narrie Dodson had the game of her career scoring 20 points. She rallied Manhattan with 16 second-half points and the game-saving block on Saint Peter’s Jada Williams with the Jaspers up one with 17 seconds left. Just before that, Dodson assisted Petra Juric on the decisive layup with 27 seconds left.
Juric, a sophomore from Croatia, was involved in some of the biggest plays all week for Manhattan beyond even the box score, where she thrived with two double doubles. With her team trailing in the third quarter against Quinnipiac, Juric drew a one and one and then stole the ball to set up Davis for a fast break layup to give Manhattan the lead for good.
The scrappy work is what could separate Juric from other skilled bigs who like to stay in their comfort zone by focusing on scoring.
“People have told me I need to fight more and be stronger,” Juric said after the Quinnipiac game.
Juric and some of the younger Jaspers are benefitting from the lessons and experiences unique to postseason basketball. For some of them, like Juric, it’s their second time going through this after the run last season, which ended in a 73-68 loss to a Fairfield team that was 25-7 overall.
Others like freshman point guard Anne Bair were thrown into the fire. In the big moments, the composure Bair showed belied her relative inexperience.
She was a stabilizing presence in the 81-68 win over Niagara in the semifinals, and turned in a unique stat line with seven assists in the first half and all eight of her points coming from the free throw.
“To be able to have a 7 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio was incredibly impressive,” Vulin said of Bair.
“Anne Bair is the most fired up person I know,” Davis said of her backcourt mate.
Manhattan was the underdog in consecutive MAAC Championship games, even after entering the bracket last season as the third seed.