Sunday, March 10, 2013

Manhattan Makes MAAC Title Game A Battle for NYC

New York City basketball and a little bit of everything that makes it good, will be on full display at the MAAC men's tournament's championship game Monday at 9 p.m.

It will be Iona's high-powered offense, currently ranked second nationally in points per game (81.4), vs. Manhattan's suffocating defense that has allowed an average of 54.0 ppg. over its last 12 games, during which the Jaspers have been 9-3.

Manhattan earned its way into Monday's championship game with a 60-42 victory over Fairfield, setting up the meeting of New York City-area schools physically separated by a mere 9.3 miles.

No two schools are closer, geographically, among the 10 MAAC members. Possibly, no two conference schools have more historical and successful programs Yet, the schools are diametrically opposed when it comes to producing victories on the court this season.

Manhattan was forced to emphasize defense almost by default, after opening the season as a high-flying, up-tempo offensive-minded team featuring senior swingman George Beamon, the leading scorer in the MAAC a year ago.

And, then, the Jaspers lost Beamon to ankle woes after he played jost four games and had to adjust.

But, they didn't adjust right away.

"Because we had guys like Shane (freshman Shane Richards) and Donovan (sophomore Donovan Kates), guys who played the same position as George, we tried to keep the offense the same," said Manhattan coach Steve Masiello.

But it didn't work. Manhattan was 3-6 at the midway point of the MAAC season.

"Rhamel (center Rhamel Brown) and Emmy (forward Emmy Andujar) came to me and asked me to make some changes," said Masiello. We started stressing them, along with Mike Alvarado, more in our offense. And, now, we don't care if we score 80 or if we score 30  ... we just know that we're going to defend you. We've got a chance to win every game if we do that."

The midseason adjustment also brought a change in results. The Jaspers went 6-3 down the stretch in MAAC play and are 9-3 overall over their last 12 games, including the first two rounds of the tournament. They've now beaten Fairfield three times in the last 12 games, holding the Stags to 40, 31 and 42 points.

The trip to the finals is Manhattan's first opportunity to play for the automatic NCAA tournament berth that goes to the winner of the MAAC tournament since the 2004 season when it won that title-game appearance.

That was the program's third tournament championship victory in its 32-year affiliation with the MAAC, and fourth NCAA tournament appearance overall. Manhattan was one of two conference teams to ever gain an at-large NCAA invitation, that coming in 1995.

Coincidentally, the other conference team to get an at-large NCAA berth is Iona, which got its' last season.

Iona has won the MAAC tournament six times in its previous 31 MAAC seasons, the most of any conference program.

Manhattan advanced by rallying from a 16-5 early deficit and outscored Fairfield 55-26 the rest of the way.

Andujar, coming off the bench, led the 14-17 Jaspers with 16 points while Alvarado had 12.

Maurice Barrow led Fairfield with 15, but Manhattan held the Stags' leading scorer, senior guard Derek Needham, to just four points on 2-of-10 shooting.

And, now, the battle of New York, albeit at a location considerably to the northeast.

"I look at it as two extremely great basketball schools from a tradition standpoint," said Masiello. "They're ahead of us ... Iona is the face of New York City basketball for now. They're some place where we want to be.

"We're both playing with an opportunity to go to `The Dance.' We've both got a lot of New York City kids who know each other well, who have competing for something like this since they were in grade school and high school. These kids and this opportunity is what New York City basketball is all about."

The only guarantee, though, is that just one of the MAAC's two New York City schools in Monday's championship game will get an NCAA tournament berth.

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