The thrill of victory and agony of defeat usually goes hand in hand in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The Manhattan College men’s basketball team know the feeling after last weekend.
They had their work cut out for them to salvage something after a 71-60 loss at Iona on Friday night. But less than 48 hours later, the Jaspers won a 73-72 nailbiter at Fairfield and took sole possession of sixth place home with them.
Manhattan didn’t roll over at Iona, but they couldn’t put much of a dent into the Gaels’ lead, which grew to 20 points early in the second half. A three-pointer by Samir Stewart brought Manhattan to within 12 with 3 minutes left as the Jaspers continued to battle in ways they may not have done in years past.
Within 40 minutes of action in New Rochelle, there were shades of good and bad basketball that are normal under a first-year head coach such as Manhattan’s RaShawn Stores. The positives were ascribed to the play of Josh Roberts and backup center Adam Cisse in the front court who took turns going at Iona’s Nelly Junior Joseph. The bruising tandem combined for 21 points and 26 rebounds, 18 of which were pulled down by Roberts, who leads the league with nearly 10 rebounds per game. Joseph, one of the league’s premier bigs, countered with 12 points and 17 rebounds.
Iona came flying out of the gates with Walter Clayton Jr. hitting three early three-pointers to stake a 16-9 lead. Clayton went on to finish with 23 points and coalesced with his back court mate Daniss Jenkins for a couple of highlight reel dunks that captivated the crowd.
Iona likes to run in transition as their size and athleticism poses problems every team they face.
“We let them get going early, especially Clayton,” Manhattan interim head coach RaShawn Stores said.
Manhattan lost both games to Iona this season, but the first one at Draddy Gymnasium required overtime. In the return game, Manhattan was held to just under 40 percent shooting from the field and started off slow with a few turnovers.
With the win over Manhattan, Iona clinched a bye for the upcoming MAAC Tournament set for next month in Atlantic City. Manhattan will have a few more dress rehearsals to get ready for a potential rematch against Iona in March. The last time the rivals faced off against each other in the conference tournament was 2018 when Iona survived the quarterfinals round with a 12-point win. The 2017-18 campaign was also the last time Manhattan got swept by Iona in the season series.
By the time Sunday came around, Manhattan had a good game plan against a Fairfield team they matched up well. This version of the Stags is a facsimile of the Manhattan teams in recent years who prided themselves on the defensive end and slowed the pace. The difference now between the two teams is that Manhattan has an edge offensively.
Games between these two are usually a slugfest, and this installment looked no different as Manhattan only led 9-7 nearly nine minutes in.
However, the Jaspers were able to create separation with their ability to score in the paint and were bolstered by the efforts of Roberts and Cisse who combined for 17 points in total. Manhattan took a 35-27 lead into the halftime break before having to hold on for their one-point win.
“We played really well tonight but we just need to get better on the glass and make free throws,” Stores said. “We stayed together and believed even when they went on a run.”
The ending to this one actually mirrored the contest between the two teams earlier in the season when Manhattan eked out a 56-53 win at Draddy Gymnasium on Dec. 1. The first meeting ended with Manhattan trapping Fairfield’s Caleb Fields on the perimeter, leading to a lost final possession for the Stags.
Similarly, in the return game on Sunday, Fairfield’s TJ Long once again hit a game-tying three, this time with over two and a half minutes left which tied the game at 66. Long hurt the Jaspers with his shooting prowess in the second half and totaled 23 points.
The Jaspers had to sweat out the final tenths of a second when Cisse fouled Jalen Leach on a three-point attempt with Manhattan up four. Cisse pleaded with the refs and Stores gave his veteran player an incredulous look from the sidelines.
“Freshman or (not), it doesn’t matter who, you shouldn’t be around the shooter at that time,” Stores said. “But you would rather learn your lesson with a win than a loss.”
Coming out of timeout with nine tenths of second left, Leach hit two free throws and intentionally missed the third before the whistle blew again. This time it was Nelson, who went over the back of Fairfield’s Supreme Cook as only six-tenths of a second came off the clock. Suddenly, Cook had two free throws to force possible overtime.
He made the first before Stores called a timeout to ice the second free throw. The second rolled in and out on Cook, clinching the heartbreaker for Fairfield and the triumphant road win for Manhattan.
Fairfield was 15 for 16 from the free throw line at one point before missing six of their last 11 attempts. Cook was 5 for 10 from the charity stripe, and in uncharacteristic fashion misfired on his first six shots of the game. Those were points left on the board for the Fairfield center, despite racking up 17 points and 17 rebounds.
The Jaspers’ depth powered them as nine players scored, led by 24 points from Nelson. That marks eight games with 20 or more points for Nelson this season, and he remains fifth on the conference scoring average list at over 15 points per game. Nelson played a key role in staving off the Stags who shot over 50 percent in the second half.
“They had a guy today (Nelson) who just kind of willed them,” Fairfield head coach Jay Young said.
After the game, Nelson voiced his praises for Stores with a resounding endorsement.
“I think it’s time to take the interim tag off,” Nelson said of the 31-year-old Stores. “I think everyone thinks that.”
Even with four games left, Manhattan has already equaled its number of MAAC wins from a season ago with eight. Stores and the Jaspers sit a half game behind Niagara University for the fifth and final bye at the conference tournament.