Friday, March 21, 2014

Masiello Nearly Gets Best Of Match with Mentor Pitino

It was a matchup neither coach wanted.

Neither Louisville's Rick Pitino, nor Manhattan's Steve Masiello had any complaint about their respective seeding position. It's just that they didn't appreciate the "wisdom" of the NCAA Tournament's selection committee for pairing their respective teams up in Thursday's late game played Orlando.

There were too many emotions, too many connections.

Pitino has long been Masiello's mentor, beginning when he encouraged the now-Manhattan coach to come to Kentucky as a walk-on.

Pitino recognized Masiello's basketball acumen and convinced the young player that he would be best served learning the ins and outs of the game while mostly being a reserve at a high-major program.

Masiello got a year under Pitino's tutelage before the Kentucky coach moved on to Louisville. A year later, Masiello was part of a Kentucky national championship team under Tubby Smith.

But, the connection with Pitino remained strong, and when Masiello began his ascent in the coaching ranks, he was reunited with Pitino, who brought Masiello to Louisville as an assistant. Masiello worked there under Pitino for six seasons prior to being hired at Manhattan.

And, the relationship goes deeper than that. Back in the late 1980's, when Pitino was the head coach of the NBA New York Knicks, the pre-adolescent Masiello was one of the team's ball boys.

Their relationship is such that Masiello calls Pitino his second father.

So, no wonder that both coaches bristled about Thursday's pairing.

"I don't know if the selection committee is having fun with this," said Masiello, when discussion the match prior to Thursday's contest. "But, it's not fun for me."

Almost not fun for Pitino, either, on Thursday night as the Jaspers very nearly pulled off one of this year's most-surprising early upsets before a late-game Louisville surge enabled Pitino and his team to earn a 71-64 victory in a game that ended a few ticks after 1 a.m. Friday morning.

It certainly was an exciting enough, a close-enough contest to keep your scribe awake and watching over the 46-inch TV until Friday's wee hours.

Manhattan actually led under the three-minute mark, and the game was tied with less than two minutes remaining before the Jaspers' best inside player, Rhamel Brown, fouled out and Louisville went on a 10-2 run down the stretch.

The primary late hero for the winners was swingman Luke Hancock, who similarly came up big a a year ago in Louisville's championship-game victory in the 2013 tournament.

Hancock stole a pass and converted two free throws (after Brown's fifth foul) that lifted the winners to a 62-60 lead with 1:53 remaining. Hancock added back-to-back three-point buckets after that to
give Louisville a 68-62 advantage that enabled it to secure the victory.

Manhattan, though, was close throughout with relentless defensive pressure, the likes of which had been on display throughout MAAC play throughout Masiello's three years at the program's helm. And, the Manhattan coach isn't reluctant to admit his team's style of play is a carbon-copy of what his mentor, Pitino, does at Louisville.

For a night, the student very nearly got the best of the teacher.

And, there was even one more connection between the two programs.

When Masiello was at Louisville as Pitino's assistant, he was that program's lead recruiter. His work there brought in Louisville guard Russ Smith, an undersized 6-foot-0 senior this year who developed into one of the top offensive players in the country.

Smith got a game-high 18 points Thursday against Manhattan.

Louisville entered the contest as a No. 4 seed to Manhattan's No. 13 seeding position. And, Pitino's team, last year's national champion, is now 30-5 overall and perceived by many as a potential repeat titlist.

Afterwards, though, Pitino paid his pupil's team an apt compliment.

“I thought Manhattan was the better team tonight until four minutes to go in the game,” Pitino told reporters, afterwards. “I told [Masiello] he should be really proud of his basketball team and I told him I was very proud of his coaching, his preparation. I knew this game was going to be this way.”

After trailing 35-29 at the game's intermission, Manhattan opened the second half on an 8-0 surge and held a lead with just under three minutes remaining. before Louisville's late-game surge.

Manhattan, which finishes 25-8 on the season, got a team-high 16 points from center Ashton Pankey.

“I thought we played well for about 39, 38 minutes, but that’s what happens when you play great teams,” Masiello told reporters, afterwards. “You give them that one opportunity, they make you pay. They saw a crack in the door, they took advantage of it. I thought their experience being here showed a little bit down the stretch.”

Manhattan's 25 victories this season have only been surpassed once in program history. The school's 1994-95 team had a 26-5 record.

Manhattan won 16 road games this season, the second-most nationally through Thursday's games.

The senior class of Mike Alvarado, George Beamon and Brown is the first three-member senior class in school history to all go over 1,000 career points.

"I couldn't be prouder of these three guys (Alvarado, Beamon and Brown and what they've done for Manhattan basketball, what they've done for the program and where they've brought it, and it's all because of them," Masiello said, in a post-game statement released by his school. "They are everything I could ever want in a student‑athlete, and I'll never have a senior class like this again, ever."

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