It’s an adage Steve Masiello has repeated frequently during his six-year tenure as head coach of Manhattan College’s men’s basketball team.
“It’s February, it’s time for Manhattan to be Manhattan,” Masiello said last Saturday after the Jaspers’ 68-67 victory over the Marist Red Foxes at Draddy Gym.
The Jaspers, who seem to play their best basketball in February and March, opened up the month the right way with a stellar defensive performance, holding the Red Foxes to 35 percent shooting from the floor.
“I thought our defensive mentality was there tonight, which we’ve been missing,” Masiello said. “We haven’t seen it since we left it at Niagara.” Niagara was the site of Manhattan’s last win previous to the Marist game when the Jaspers logged a 70-69 victory over the Purple Eagles.
Since taking over the head coaching job in 2011, Masiello’s teams have posted a 39-23 mark in the months of February and March, which includes three runs to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championship Game and two championship victories. The Jaspers won those two MAAC titles in part because of their elite defense, which pressed opponents all game and caused chaos and turnovers.
Against the Red Foxes, Manhattan got back to its defensive roots.
The Jaspers had struggled defensively over the last two weeks, which saw them lose five of their last six games. Over that stretch Manhattan allowed opponents to score an average of 80.2 points per game. But last Saturday the Jaspers held the Red Foxes to under 70 points.
“It’s taking us some time to figure it out,” Masiello said. “But I think they’re learning. The biggest issue I have with this team right now is there are certain nights I recognize us and there are other nights I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ Tonight was a night I recognized us.”
The win against Marist comes at a crucial point for the Jaspers, who headed into the contest in last place in the MAAC standings. After the victory over Marist, the Jaspers moved into 10th place, a half game ahead of Marist and just a game behind ninth-place Niagara. The Jaspers sit three games behind Rider and Quinnipiac who sit in seventh and eighth place, respectively. Manhattan has six conference games remaining before the start of the MAAC Tournament on March 2.
“No matter how the win is, it’s a big win confidence-wise,” said Zane Waterman, who scored a game-high 22 points, including the game-winner against Marist. “Close game or blowout it feels good either way.”
The Jaspers were in danger of dropping the contest Saturday night, however. After dominating the first half when it held Marist to 30 percent shooting from the field while holding a 31-22 lead at halftime, Manhattan came out sluggish in the second half while Marist opened the half with a 16-5 run to take a 38-36 lead. Manhattan slowed Marist down a bit and kept it close, but 38 percent shooting in the period kept Manhattan from going on a sustained run.
“Unfortunately we let it be a ball game,” Masiello said. “I’ve got to look at what I’m doing. I’ve got to look at the lineups I’m playing. I have to really evaluate some things.”
After Marist’s Brian Parker hit a free throw with 23 seconds remaining, Manhattan had the ball down, 67-65, with a chance to tie or win the game. The Jaspers, who have struggled in late-game situations this season, losing three contests in the final seconds, made amends this time as Waterman buried a triple from the corner to give Manhattan the lead with nine seconds to play.
“[Zavier Turner] was supposed to get a layup, but both my man and his man went with him, so he just kicked it out to me,” Waterman said of the final play.
The Red Foxes had a chance to win the game on the next possession, but Khalid Hart failed to hit the rim on his 3-point attempt, securing the victory for the Jaspers.
Despite the win, Masiello wants to see his team focus more.
“We’re not there yet from an emotional standpoint, and that’s something we’re going to work on a lot this week,” Masiello said.
Turner scored 12 points to join Waterman as the only two Jaspers to score in double figures.
Now perhaps the toughest portion of the schedule approaches for the Jaspers. Manhattan will host the first-place Monmouth Hawks Friday, Feb. 10 at 9 p.m., before welcoming the third- place Saint Peter’s Peacocks on Sunday, Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. The Jaspers will then head to Albany on Feb. 16 where they will take on the Siena Saints, who currently occupy fourth place in the MAAC.