Steve Masiello and Manhattan show the world who is No. 1 in MAAC, as Jaspers win conference championship to clinch first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)
In a lot of ways, Manhattan and Iona are the Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed of college basketball.
In their first MAAC championship clash last year, the underdog Jaspers went the distance with the juggernaut Gaels, but lost by three points as Tim Cluess took Iona to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
Last night, Manhattan got their rematch, and much like the final scene of "Rocky II," where Rocky staggers to his feet before the referee's count to defeat Creed and win the heavyweight championship, the blue-collar team got their revenge.
Inspired by a never-say-die attitude and suffocating defense that has become a trademark under head coach Steve Masiello, Manhattan (25-7) emerged from a war of a basketball game victorious, defeating Iona (22-10) by the final of 71-68, claiming the program's first conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, when Bobby Gonzalez led the Jaspers to a Cinderella run that included an upset of Billy Donovan's nationally-ranked Florida Gators.
"This is a major thing for Manhattan College and men's basketball for us to be able to get where we are from where we started," a humble Masiello remarked upon winning the Jaspers' fourth MAAC title and reaching their seventh all-time NCAA Tournament. "I couldn't be more proud of my players, my staff, and all of the people that supported us."
Even though Manhattan drew first blood 25 seconds into the game on a George Beamon three-pointer, Iona had no intention of laying down in the last step in the Gaels' championship defense, ripping off a 10-1 run that Manhattan responded from with seven unanswered points. The two teams traded baskets for several minutes thereafter, with Iona leading 22-18 before an 11-0 Jasper spurt that Beamon capped off with a putback that gave Manhattan a 29-22 lead with 3:43 remaining before halftime.
Following a 33-27 lead at the intermission, the Jaspers struck first again in the second half, when Iona killer Emmy Andujar (12 points) extended the lead to eight points, but the Gaels fired right back with an 11-0 outburst of their own that was punctuated by a David Laury basket, giving Iona a 38-35 advantage with 15:58 to go.
An ensuing 12-3 Manhattan run swung the lead back to the Jaspers, and Iona was able to remain in the game by taking advantage of the Jaspers' struggles at the free throw line. However, the Gaels were unable to fully benefit due to foul shooting woes of their own, mostly those of Laury, who missed six of his nine attempts at the charity stripe. Yet for all the inefficiency down the stretch, the reigning champions gradually chipped away at their deficit, getting it down to two when an A.J. English dunk brought the Gaels within 70-68 with 17 seconds remaining.
With Cluess having called his final timeout immediately after English's slam, Iona needed to foul to extend the game, and immediately wrapped up Donovan Kates on the ensuing possession. Having played a relatively clean game through most of the second half, the Gaels had only placed Manhattan in the single bonus, earning Kates a one-and-one. The junior swingman made the first attempt, but missed the second, setting up yet another classic ending to a classic rivalry.
Having to go the length of the court in 16.3 seconds, Iona needed a three-pointer to tie the game. However, with Manhattan having covered both English and Sean Armand, it was Laury who got the ball for the game-tying attempt. Laury's shot grazed the rim, avenging Manhattan's 60-57 loss from a year ago as the clock ran out.
Andujar and Rhamel Brown, along with Armand in the losing effort, were named to the conference's all-tournament team, with Beamon being named Most Valuable Player after his 16-point, 8-rebound effort that set off a celebration at the MassMutual Center, with the 36-year-old Masiello; in his third year as a head coach, leading the way, acting for all the world like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
"I can't even put it into words," Masiello honestly admitted when asked if he thought this success would come so soon. "We've just been through so much. We've seen so much, had so many downs, so many ups. These three guys (Beamon, Brown and Michael Alvarado) didn't even know me, and they just believed in me like it was meant to be."
Team of destiny maybe, but after last night, it seems as if the age-old question "what is a Jasper?" finally has an answer to silence the mocking retorts of Iona fans over the years, a one-word answer at that: