A season that began with considerable adversity certainly ended in good fashion for the Manhattan men's basketball team, even if it didn't win the MAAC tournament's championship game Monday night.
But, just getting there was a considerable achievement.
Things started going the wrong direction for the program even before the season began when the NCAA failed to grant a transfer waiver to 6-foot-10 Andy Pankey, whom came to the Jaspers after a solid freshman season at Maryland while numerous other transfers, both within the league and nationally, received waivers (which enabled them to play immediately) for apparently similar reasons as Pankey's.
And, then, senior swingman George Beamon, the league's leading scorer in 2011-12, suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, came back to play four games and suffered another ankle injury that kept him out the rest of the year.
Through all that, the Jaspers opened with a 5-14 record through Jan. 17. After that, beginning with a victory over second-place MAAC finisher Rider, Manhattan won nine of its next 12 games to get to the conference tournament's championship game before it had that run ended by Iona, 60-57.
"I could not be more proud of a group of young me," said second-year head coach Steve Masiello. "To have gotten here, after what this team has been through, is unbelievable. We'll look back on this day and cherish it. This will be the fuel for our future.
"The turnaround for us this year was all about our players. They understand that (after losing Beamon) we weren't an offensive team. Our success came on the defensive end, and that was led by our seniors. When the young guys saw that kind of dedication to defense fro our seniors they didn't have a choice but to follow. These are the guys who are getting this program's tradition back."
There looks to be more tradition to put in place a year from now. Beamon played few enough games to redshirt and come back for 2013-14. Pankey will be eligible, and he was more than just a bit reserve at Maryland, having made 17 starts there as a freshman in 2011-12 and averaging 4.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game. He is the type "big man" that rarely falls to the mid-major level.
"Next season Manhattan will be the team everyone will be scared of," said departing senior Roberto Colonette. "This program is going to the NCAA tournament next season, without a doubt."
Colonette is one of just two departing seniors, along with guard Mohamed Koaita. Together, they averaged just 6.9 points and 4.2 rebounds.
The returning group will be joined by former five-star recruit and junior college standout Chris Thomas from Chipola Junior College in Denver), a 6-foot-5 shooting guard originally committed to Xavier before opting, instead, to come to Manhattan for next season.
It all does indeed put Manhattan squarely in the picture as a legitimate contender for the top spot in the MAAC next season.
Before the 2012-13 academic season even began, the Iona program suffered tragedy when incoming recruit Michael Haynes, projected to be a key contributor for the Gaels at forward, was shot and killed in his Chicago hometown just days away from reporting to the New Rochelle school for summer classes.
But, the Gaels didn't forget him.
"We dedicated this season to Mike Haynes," said Iona's senior guard Momo Jones, after Monday night's championship game victory. "We think about him every day. We've got a (memorial) patch on the shoulder of our uniforms. Every day, every time we had a time out here (in the tournament), we'd remind each other that this season was for him.
"Wining here ... this was the best way we could have represented him."
CLOSE GAMES HELPED
Iona had to be the hard-luck team of regular-season play when, during a late-season 1-6 stretch of games, the six losses came by a combined 11 points.
But, maybe that didn't hurt.
"I think going through that helped our guys understand the importance of each play, especially on the defensive end," said Gaels' coach Kevin Cluess. "But, I'm tired of hearing that we didn't play defense. Our scores are so high because we take so many shots in games. We played strong defense all year."
DON'T CALL IT REDEMPTION
Iona will be making its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament. A year ago the Gaels had a 25-point lead over BYU in the first 15 minutes of an opening-round game, still led by 24 at halftime and, then, lost.
Someone, shortly after Iona's MAAC championship game victory Monday night, asked if the team would be looking for redemption for last season's result.
"I'm proud of what our team did last year ... I don't look at it that way," said coach Tim Cluess. "Our guys at no time did not give their heart and soul. We played as good a 15 minutes of basketball of anyone in the tournament. But, BYU was a very good team.
"I'm thrilled to go back, and we'll use a year ago as motivation. But, we don't look at this in any way as an opportunity for redemption."