To make a run in March, it is about getting hot at the right time. It could also mean avoiding certain opponents at the right time. That is what happened to Manhattan College men’s basketball team as it lost the MAAC tournament opener to Marist College, 61-50, to end the season.
When Manhattan hosted Marist in late February, it was the first time the Jaspers had seen the Red Foxes since an 80-69 win for Manhattan on Dec. 19 in Poughkeepsie. Since then, both teams had been on two separate trajectories. Manhattan emerged as a feel-good story in the conference by amassing an 8-8 record heading down the stretch of the regular season.
Marist, in a rebuilding season, could not say the same. Yet suddenly, something clicked for them on that one, late-season night at Draddy Gymnasium.
It was a breakout game for the Red Foxes, manhandling the Jaspers ,81-58. Manhattan fell behind early in the loss to continue their season-long theme of shaky beginnings.
The rubber match against Marist in the opening round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament on March 7 came with sudden death implications. Manhattan, the six seed, thrived under pressure all season as they fought for interim head coach RaShawn Stores both on and off the court. Some players publicly campaigned midseason for the school to remove Stores’ interim tag.
Emboldened by those rallying cries, the Jaspers had a penchant for coming back from large deficits. They stunned Quinnipiac and Siena for back-to-back wins late in the season. The win at Quinnipiac lifted them from the ashes of a 21-point deficit in the first half.
However, something about tournament games seems to make the clock tick quicker. In the first round against Marist, Manhattan went six minutes in the first half without a point, and a smidgen of light existed at the end of the tunnel while Marist staked out a 36-17 halftime lead.
Manhattan went on its usual run in the second half and cut the deficit to four twice. With their careers on the line, Ant Nelson and Josh Roberts reprised their roles in this latest comeback attempt.
After failing to hit a field goal in the previous loss against Marist, Nelson found his groove this time and contributed nine points in an 11-0 run for Manhattan that cut the deficit to 48-44 with just under five minutes left.
Before Nelson’s stretch, Roberts had his own eruption by scoring 11 of the Jaspers’ next 16 points out of the break to help start shifting the momentum.
In the end, a couple of defensive stands and a few trips to the free throw line were enough for the Red Foxes to seal their first tournament victory since 2015.
For Manhattan, their absence from the quarterfinals round extends to a third season.
“I’m proud of these young men,” Stores told reporters after the game. “We faced adversity and continued to handle it on and off the court.”
That was just the beginning for Marist, who notched wins over Quinnipiac and Saint Peter’s before running out of gas against Iona and losing 76-55 in the championship game. However, Marist hung tough for a while and was tied with Iona at 46 apiece with 10:36 left.
Patrick Gardner posted 22 points and 11 rebounds against Manhattan. He scored 10 points on the strength of two threes as part of a game-changing 18-0 run to end the half. Gardner turned out to be a diamond in the rough for Marist after spending his first three seasons on thejJunior college and Division Three levels.
The 6-foot-11 center with a shooter’s touch averaged 19.1 points-per-game, a hair behind the 19.5 scoring clip of Niagara’s Noah Thomasson.
Manhattan had hot and cold stretches of shooting this season, but ended the season shooting 4-of-27 from the three-point arc. The lack of scoring depth behind Nelson’s 15 and Roberts’ 11 was apparent too, as no other players finished in double figures.
The ending is never easy, especially for a Manhattan team that fought against the odds to scrape together 12 wins. The Jaspers were picked second in the preseason poll before the firing of Steve Masiello and the ensuing exits of three starters. For now, Manhattan enters the offseason without a permanent coach and Stores is ensconced in the running for the full-time job.
“Coach Stores helped me become a better man, a better father, and better human in general,” Nelson said.