Monday, March 10, 2014

Manhattan Completes Journey, Earns NCAA Berth

Spectators are not allowed to storm the court at the MAAC tournament, but it was fine with Manhattan coach Steve Masiello that his school's supporters couldn't immediately join the on-court festivities immediately after his team's 71-68 victory over Iona in Monday's championship contest.

Because Masiello and his players soon went over to their sizeable rooting section and mixed with fans there.

There was certainly plenty for the Jaspers to celebrate Monday night.

Start with a victory over geographic rival Iona (the schools are separated by 9.3 miles) in what many consider to be the best college basketball rivalry in New York State.

Throw in some revenge from a year ago when the two programs meet in the 2013 MAAC event's championship game with Iona coming out on top by the same three-point margin that Manhattan won by this season.

And, then, throw in the Manhattan program's first trip to the NCAA tournament, by virtue of winning the conference's automatic berth with the event's championship, in 10 years.

The Jaspers earned all of that Monday night with their typically tough, gritty play on both ends of the court that mirrors the same approach to coaching embraced by Steve Masiello, the team's third-year head coach.

It completes a downtrodden to top-of-the heap rise for Manhattan that, as recently as the 2010-11 season, the year before Masiello was hired, was dead last in the MAAC standings with a 3-15 record.

This all nearly happened a year earlier when the team played most of the year without its leading scorer swingman George Beamon, rebuilt itself into a defensive-oriented squad and advanced to the 2013 championship contest before its season ended with the three-point loss to the Gaels.

Manhattan, with Beamon back, was more an offensive team early in the year this season.

"We tried to be both a good offensive team and a good defensive team," said Masiello. "But, at midseason, we decided to just concentrate on defense."

It more than paid off Monday as Manhattan limited the Gaels to just 6-of-21 from three-point range and held them to more than 14 points below their per-game average.

"I told the guys before the game that it was like the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos, and that we were the Seahawks," said Masiello. "If we took care of defense we'd win the game, and we did that."

"We didn't shoot well from beyond the three-point line," admitted Iona coach Tim Cluess. "Our guys just missed shots."

Iona was particularly ineffective offensively in the first half, scoring just 27 points. They began playing better on that end after the half, and had a last-gasp possession with 16 seconds remaining and trailing by three but withou a time out.

Manhattan defended that last possession to near perfection and Iona's only look was a far short three-point try by 6-foot-9 post player David Laury at the buzzer.

The Jaspers played the entire second half without its senior point guard Mike Alvarado, who suffered a broken nose late in Sunday's semifinal-round victory.

"This is a major thing for Manhattan College," said Masiello. "To get here from where we started three years ago."

"We went from being a 3-15 team to having the biggest victory increase the following year (winning 21 games in 2011-12 after getting just six wins the year before Masiello's arrival)," said Manhattan's Beamon.

"And, then, we went to the championship game last season. Now we're here ... it is a great feeling."

"This program was rated somewhere around 340th (of 343 Division I teams nationally) when I got there," added Masiello. "And, now, we've earned an NCAA berth just 34 months later."

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