Few could have predicted the bounce back season the Manhattan College women’s basketball team is having this year. After all, the program was coming off a disappointing 11-win campaign last season, one marred by injuries and characterized by an over-reliance on young players.
But one of the few positives for Manhattan was the growth of Courtney Warley, the junior center who led the team in most defensive categories a season ago. Warley was so dominant last year she earned only the second Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference defensive player of the year award in program history.
Flash forward to last Thursday night’s regular-season finale against Monmouth, and there was Warley playing a leading role in Manhattan’s hard-fought 54-48 victory. Despite some physical play from Hawks’ center Alexa Middleton, Warley turned in another superlative performance with 17 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. It was her seventh straight double-digit scoring performance.
The win was the sixth in their last seven games, and fifth in a row for the Jaspers, who are currently playing some of their best ball of the year. Manhattan’s 15 wins are the most in a single season in Vulin’s four years at the Jaspers’ helm, representing a significant upgrade from the program’s eight wins from her first season.
“Courtney was tremendous at the front of the press,” Vulin said. “When she’s active, it inspires everyone else to be really aggressive.”
Manhattan came out flat against the Hawks, falling behind 26-24 at halftime. In establishing its lead, Monmouth held the Jaspers to 36 percent (9-of-25) shooting in the first half. Meanwhile, the Hawks played with a chip on their shoulder on offense, pounding the ball inside to set up several easy baskets.
Seven Hawks got on the board in the first half, led by six points from Middleton, who finished with 13 points to lead her team.
But Manhattan made some adjustments in the second half. Ranking second in the MAAC with 2.7 steals per game, Warley was entrusted as the one in Manhattan’s 2-2-1 press that forced the Hawks to quicken their pace. With the Jaspers trailing 33-30 in the third quarter, Warley stole a ball off a Monmouth in-bounds play below the Hawks’ basket that led to an uncontested layup to cut the Manhattan deficit to one. That play epitomized Warley’s defensive prowess.
The Jaspers were too aggressive at times, however. The team committed nine fouls in the third quarter alone, putting the Hawks in bonus territory with just over four minutes left. But Monmouth failed to capitalize by hitting only 4-of-11 from the free throw line in the quarter. Nevertheless, the Hawks owned a 37-36 lead after three.
The Jaspers got a huge offensive boost afterward from freshman Emily LaPointe. LaPointe’s arrival at Manhattan generated a lot of hype, and she has lived up to it all season. The former Staten Island Academy standout is the MAAC’s top rookie this season, earning conference rookie of the week honors seven times during the regular season. She also leads Manhattan in scoring at 13.4 points a game, and it was her offensive burst in the fourth quarter that helped fuel the Jaspers’ comeback.
After scoring nine points in the first half, LaPointe poured in eight more in the fourth, doing her damage in a variety of ways, including hitting two of Manhattan’s three three-pointers. With Manhattan trailing by four in the fourth period, LaPointe hit her second three of the night with just under six minutes to play to spark a 9-0 run. With that, Manhattan was able to build a 47-42 lead.
“We’ve been spoiled all year because she always finds a way to get into double digits for us,” Vulin said. “We are really excited for her and her success.”
After a layup by Middleton cut the Monmouth deficit to three, Manhattan senior Julie Hoier retaliated with a clutch three-ball with 1:07 left that pushed the Jaspers’ lead to 50-44, effectively sealing the win. It was a fitting end to a memorable senior night for Hoier and the other Manhattan seniors, Gabby Cajou, Emma Bedeker, Tuuli Menna and Pamela Miceus.
“Julie hit the biggest shot of the night,” Vulin said. “It was their (seniors) last game at Draddy, and I knew going in that they were going to have extra emotions tonight.”
Manhattan finished the season 15-14 overall, 12-8 in MAAC play. The Jaspers now head to the MAAC tournament in Atlantic City as the No. 3 seed, earning a first-round bye. It’s their highest seeding in the tournament since earning the three seed in 2012.
Manhattan will face the winner of the Siena-Canisius first-round game in a quarterfinal match March 12 at noon.