Friday, January 13, 2012

Manhattan Enjoys Improbable Upset of Iona

The early season hype portrayed the Iona men's basketball team as potentially the best Division I squad in the New York metropolitan area.

But, for now, the Gaels would be hard pressed to claim being the Big City-area's best even in their own conference.

Oh, Iona still has the conference's best record at 5-1. But, for a night anyway, an upstart, vastly improved Manhattan program has reawakened the echoes of its glory days earning a shocking 75-72 victory over the Gaels, at Iona's home court before a packed house in New Rochelle, no less.

Manhattan rallied from an 18-point deficit early in the second half and still faced a 17-point hole with 7:53 left to play.

Before the Jaspers' rally, it looked like one of those nights. Heck the team even struggled getting to the game as its team bus broke down on the Major Deegan highway in rush-hour traffic en route to the contest. But, players piled into a dozen taxis to get to the contest, and the unlikely happenings continued upon their arrival.

Like the rally from 17 down with 7:53 remaining to be tied (after Iona's Momo Jones made a floater with 3.3 seconds left), to needing an improbably game-deciding play to pull it out.

And, it came this way: After Jones' shot, Manhattan got the ball to half court, where coach Steve Masiello quickly called a time out.

"I didn't like how it was setting up, so I called the time out," Masiello said. "We designed a play for (sophomore guard) Mike Alvarado to in-bound the ball (from near half court). Our first three options were to get it inside to Rhamel Brown, or to the corner to George Beamon."

Pretty far down on the list of options was the if-all-else-failed pass to freshman forward Emmy Andujar, but that was what was available.

Andujar needed to jump to receive the pass while facing away from the basket had to quickly turn around and get back off his feet to launch a 22-footer over the top of Iona defender Scott Machado's outstretched hands.

Replays clearly showed that Andujar's shot beat the final buzzer, and it banked in for the game-winner.

And, suddenly, an Iona team that many thought had a chance to get through conference play without a loss has had two disappointing results (the other a Dec. 29 non-league setback at Hofstra) in less than three weeks.

"If you told me the game was going to end in regulation and who deserved to win ... it's Manhattan," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "This wasn't a wake-up call (for Iona). This is a disgrace."

But it was a thing of beauty for Manhattan, which only won five total games all of last season and, now, stands 4-2 in MAAC play and 11-7 overall.

"The one constant thing for us is that there's no quit in our effort," said Masiello, a day after his team's upset victory. "Our resiliency is very high. We believe in our selves that we're never out of any game. Whether we're down 18, or 17 with eight minutes to play, we find a way to get back in games."

While the league season is only one third over, things are going very well for the Jaspers.

"I think we're the only team in the conference that, so far, has played the five teams picked to finish in the upper half of the division already (in order, Iona, Fairfield, Loyola, Rider and Saint Peter's)," said Masiello, whose team has played Rider twice and the other four once apiece.

"I told my guys that this early stretch would show how we stand. If we were still near the top of the standings after that, then we'd know we have a good team.

"I think we thought that we could have a good season, but (with the recent run of success), we know now that we can play with anyone on a given night.

"Anytime you win a game like that (Thursday's upset of Iona), you want to enjoy it a little. But, now (Friday afternoon), we're back at work and that game is behind us."

But, the benefits of that game remain, and so does the evidence that a program that has struggled in recent years is not only enjoying success once again but has proven that on a given night, it not only can play with anyone but can also lay claim, for a night, about being the MAAC's top metropolitan-area team.

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