What began in promise ended in celebration as Manhattan ended their 2013-14 season with first MAAC championship in ten years. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)
When we made our first trip of the 2013-14 season to Draddy Gym for an early November practice before eventually getting to see Manhattan in 22 games, what stood out was the depth that Steve Masiello had built for the Jaspers, making them into not just a tough mid-major, but a roster that could stand up to any program in the nation. Two season-opening victories, a double-overtime thriller at La Salle followed by George Beamon's last-second heroics against Columbia only confirmed that suspicion.
A valiant loss to Fordham dropped Manhattan to 3-2 on the young season, but what happened from there only solidified the Jaspers as a threat on any given night, as the pride of Riverdale ripped off an eight-game winning streak highlighted by a convincing win at South Carolina, the first win for the program against a team from the Southeastern Conference since Bobby Gonzalez and Luis Flores led Manhattan to the biggest victory in school history, their 75-60 upset of nationally ranked Florida in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.
Then, the 2014 version of Flores, senior shooting guard George Beamon, landed hard on his shoulder while diving for a loose ball against Quinnipiac and did not return to the game. Manhattan fought on gamely without their leader, falling short by just five points to the Bobcats before managing to go 2-1 in Beamon's absence from the lineup, including a tour de force effort from fellow senior Michael Alvarado to erase a 10-point second half deficit against Marist to defeat the Red Foxes 86-79 in overtime.
"Adversity reveals who you are at all times," Masiello instructed those assembled for his postgame press conference after Alvarado's 33 points guided the Jaspers to an improbable comeback. "When you can survive when you're supposed to go down, you're going to live a long time."
Losses in three of four games, most notably a shocking defeat to a Fairfield team previously winless in MAAC play, dropped Manhattan to 7-4 in the league, two games behind bitter adversary Iona, whose win over the Jaspers on January 31 made it seem as though the Gaels would run away with the regular season championship. Yet the Jaspers, perhaps spurred by Masiello's adversity comment of three weeks prior, would only lose once the rest of the way going into the MAAC tournament in Springfield, capturing nine of their ten final regular season contests in a stretch that saw Emmy Andujar kill Iona yet again in a dramatic overtime victory two days before RaShawn Stores shut down conference Player of the Year Billy Baron to seal a sweep of Canisius, giving Manhattan the No. 2 seed going into the postseason.
Wins over Saint Peter's and a demon-exorcising victory over Quinnipiac set up a dream rubber match between the Jaspers and Iona, one in which Masiello made a case for both teams to be included among the NCAA Tournament field before the opening tip.
Each side played like they were deserving of such an honor, with neither the Jaspers nor Gaels giving in after inefficiency at the free throw line kept Iona alive even as Manhattan threatened to drive away. With the score 70-68, Tim Cluess called a timeout following an A.J. English dunk, leading to a foul on Jasper swingman Donovan Kates; a normally reliable free throw shooter, but in this moment, only successful on the first of two attempts.
With no timeouts and only 16.3 seconds remaining, Iona drove the length of the floor, but was unable to get a decent look at the basket due to Manhattan's suffocating defense against both English and Sean Armand, forcing forward David Laury to take an off-balance three-pointer that grazed the rim as time expired, avenging a 60-57 loss the Jaspers had suffered to these same Gaels on this stage one year prior.
"I can't even put it into words," a jubilant yet humble Masiello remarked after the win. "We've just been through so much."
The best was yet to come, however, as Manhattan was rewarded for its efforts with the No. 13 seed in the Midwest Regional and a matchup with reigning national champion Louisville, whose Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino groomed Masiello for six years prior to his return to Riverdale in 2011. For over 38 minutes, however, the team described as a mirror image of the Cardinals executed the Louisville playbook step by step to the tune of a 60-58 lead late in the second half. Louisville took the lead for good with four unanswered points preceding two Luke Hancock threes, the first coming after a pump fake fooled Beamon into jumping prematurely, the second an uncontested shot with 27.5 seconds left to vault Louisville to a 71-64 win. However, the star was Masiello, who was praised by his mentor Pitino on national television for "one of the best coaching jobs" he had seen in his 39 years in the game.
Beamon, Alvarado and Rhamel Brown may be gone from a team that embodied their New York roots and embraced its role as the scrappy underdog who stands with Goliath shot for shot, but that does not mean Manhattan has faded into the sunset. The core of last season's team is back for an encore, and, with a coach who has now proven that he can make some magic happen, a return to the field of 68 is possible once more.