For the last four seasons, the Manhattan Jaspers have built a reputation as one of the best defensive teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). On the heels of their vaunted press defense that stifled opponents on offense, the Jaspers won two MAAC championships in 2014 and 2015.
While the defense may not be at a championship level right now, the Jaspers put up a defensive clinic against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 22, one reminiscent of the team’s championship defense in 2014 and 2015. The Jaspers defeated Eastern Kentucky, 81-54, and held the Colonels to 37 percent shooting from the field.
“I think it’s just not as consistent as it was that year, which I think we’ll get in time,” Calvin Crawford, a junior forward on Manhattan, said about comparisons to the 2015 defense. “When we got five guys with one eye on the ball and talking and doing what we do, we can lock up anybody.”
Manhattan locked the Colonels up defensively, allowing only one player, Nick Mayo (14 points) to reach double figures in scoring. One of the main cogs on defense was freshman Na’Quan Council, who had three steals on the night.
“My main focus is defense and energy,” Council said. “That’s my main role on the team. I’m here to play defense and give the guys energy.”
But while the defense was the highlight of the game, Crawford’s offensive exploits allowed Manhattan to break away. Crawford scored a season-high 19 points off the bench and led a second half comeback for the Jaspers.
“[Crawford’s] an All-League player,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said. “[Crawford’s] biggest problem is he’s too nice of a kid. I need him to be a little more selfish. I want him to get mad at me. When I don’t play him, get mad at me. I want that because that shows that he’s got great conviction in what he’s doing. That’s something that I’m looking for from him, and he’s showing that now. I’m very happy with his growth.”
The teams played a sloppy first half, combining for 24 fouls and 19 turnovers. The Jaspers’ struggles on offense continued, as they committed 12 turnovers and shot 37 percent from the field.
But at halftime, the Jaspers looked up at the scoreboard and, rather fortunately, found themselves down just two points at 30-28. Behind a stellar defensive performance, in which the Jaspers held Eastern Kentucky to 41 percent shooting, the Jaspers were able to hang in the game. But in the second half, Crawford took matters into his own hands, scoring 13 second-half points.
With the Jaspers up 39-35, Crawford hit a layup that ignited a 12-0 run, in which Crawford scored seven points.
“It was basically just Coach telling me, ‘it’s time to wake up, it’s time to go,’” Crawford said about his performance. “He knows what I’m capable of. Got some work in this week, so he was just basically telling me, ‘it’s time to go.’”
Manhattan continued its stout defensive performance, holding Eastern Kentucky to 33 percent shooting from the field and 10 second-half turnovers. And while the first half was a mess for the Jaspers on offense, the second half was a different story. Manhattan committed just four turnovers and shot 68 percent from the field in the win. Council had a season-high 12 points to go with five assists. Aaron Walker continued his impressive rookie campaign with 12 points and six assists.
“I’m really proud of [Council],” Masiello said. “Five assists and one turnover as a freshman is phenomenal in any game.”
With the win, the Jaspers conclude their non-conference schedule. The Jaspers will play Marist on Jan. 2, in their third MAAC conference game of the season. Before then, Masiello wants to see his team shore things up on offense, where he said his team is still immature and inexperienced.
“I want to see when you have a nine-point lead, play it 0-0, lock in,” Masiello said. “When you have a chance to take someone out, you have to take them out. You can’t let them linger. We don’t know how to do that right now.”