Monday, January 12, 2015

Manhattan 75, Iona 72: A Look Back

Then a freshman, Emmy Andujar's buzzer-beater was first of many big moments against Gaels, and reignited rivalry between Manhattan and Iona. (Photo courtesy of Iona College Athletics)

Three years ago tonight, a rivalry was renewed, careers were launched, and two teams were defined by what is still considered one of the greatest games in MAAC history. In one corner was an Iona team picked to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference behind a collection of stars in senior forward Mike Glover, point guard extraordinaire Scott Machado, and Lamont "Momo" Jones, who was in the midst of his first season in New Rochelle after transferring from Arizona. Their opponent on the other side of the court was a Manhattan College team in its first season under a young and energetic coach named Steve Masiello, who spent the previous six seasons as an assistant to Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino at Louisville, with a scrappy team that had already taken on its new leader's image after just 17 games. 

Fans of both schools took notice of the resurgence, and thus packed the Hynes Center on a Thursday evening to provide the raucous atmosphere that has now come to be expected in a matchup between the Jaspers and Gaels, and we invite you to help relive the highs and lows of what had looked like a rout, only to see an improbable three-pointer cap off an 17-point comeback.

Manhattan almost no-showed its date with destiny, as the Jaspers' team bus broke down amid rush hour traffic, forcing the team into several taxi cabs to complete the short jaunt from Riverdale to New Rochelle. At first blush, the alteration in travel had no effect on the start of the game, with George Beamon scoring the first points of the night, but the vaunted Iona transition offense made its presence known shortly thereafter, ripping off a 13-2 run to take a nine-point lead. The Jaspers kept their deficit at nine before another Iona spurt, an 11-3 outburst culminating in Kyle Smyth's three-pointer, the eighth of the half for the Gaels, to take a 30-13 advantage with seven minutes remaining in the opening stanza. Going into the locker room, Iona had limited Manhattan to 28 percent shooting from the field, with two more three-pointers than the Jaspers had entire field goals, en route to a 39-22 halftime cushion. The first twelve minutes of the second half provided more of the same, with another Smyth trifecta bringing New Rochelle to a crescendo as Iona took a 65-48 lead into the final 7:58. Yet Manhattan, as the Jaspers have come to be defined in Masiello's tenure, refused to go quietly into the cold January night.

Manhattan took a page out of the playbook Hofstra used to perfection two weeks prior, pressing the Gaels to fluster them while handling the ball, and it paid off to the tune of 10 unanswered points. A Beamon three-pointer, followed by a layup from Rhamel Brown, started the run, before a three from Kidani Brutus and two Brown free throws brought the Jaspers within seven, at 65-58, with 5:15 to play in regulation. Iona would get the lead back to seven points on the next several possessions until Emmy Andujar, a freshman from the Bronx getting the start for Manhattan on this night, pulled Manhattan within five. The five-point gap soon became four when Brutus answered a Randy Dezouvre bucket with another three-pointer to make it 69-65. Andujar then cut the lead in half by burying two free throws after Machado was called for his fourth foul, making the score 69-67 with two minutes remaining. On the ensuing possession, Machado's inbounds pass was stolen by then-sophomore Michael Alvarado, who laid it in to tie the game at 69, sending the Hynes Center, filled with more than just a handful of Jaspers fans, into delirium.

But that was not all.

Machado had two chances to put Iona ahead once more, with Glover grabbing the rebound on each attempt. On the second putback try, the forward from the Bronx was fouled by Beamon, missing the first, but making the second, giving Iona a slim 70-69 lead. Manhattan, with two timeouts to the good, called one before Brown drove to the basket and walked away with a three-point play after being fouled by Dezouvre on his second chance effort with eight seconds remaining. The free throw put Manhattan ahead 72-70 for their first lead since Beamon's first points of the night, which came nearly two hours prior, yet felt like they came two decades before.

Tim Cluess called a timeout of his own shortly before a shot that still ranks among the more miraculous attempts in recent years went in, a desperation heave by Jones from just inside the left elbow. The shot swished through the net as Jones hit the floor, tying the score at 72 and setting the stage for one last piece of drama.

Rather than play for the tie and send a thriller of a game into overtime, Masiello played for the win, and burned his final timeout with 1.3 seconds left in regulation. Alvarado triggered the inbounds from the halfcourt stripe, guarded by junior forward Taaj Ridley. Initially looking inside for Brown, the sophomore guard hurled it across the court for Andujar, who; with Machado not giving a single inch, caught the ball, turned around, and banked a three-pointer off the glass and in, as called by Christian Heimall and Chris Williams on

After the shot went in, Masiello and the Jaspers rushed into the locker room, knowing they had the game won while officials Brian O'Connell, John Hughes and Kyle Walter went to the monitor for the obligatory video replay. The shot was good, and Manhattan improved to 11-7 overall, closing the game on a 27-7 run to defeat Iona; previously undefeated in conference play, by the final of 75-72.

"I was most likely the last option," said Andujar, who finished with 17 points of his first taste of heroics. "I just called glass, and it went in."

Beamon's 21 points led all scorers, while Brown, who would go on to become one of the most intimidating interior presences in the MAAC, chipped in with 17 points and 11 rebounds off the bench. Glover led Iona in the losing effort with 18 points, and Machado, despite 16 assists, was limited to just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.

"This isn't a wakeup," Cluess would say during his postgame press conference. "It was a disgrace."

Both teams would use this game as a turning point for the remainder of their respective seasons. Manhattan would go on to finish 21-13 and reach the Tournament, as Masiello would eventually guide the largest turnaround in the nation from a win-loss standpoint, winning 15 more games than Barry Rohrssen did the previous season. For the hometown Gaels, their deflation over the final eight minutes became the stuff of legends, but Iona played harder and stronger over the final two months of the year, winning the MAAC and earning just the second at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in conference history. The Gaels would fall short against Brigham Young in the field of 68, but would defeat the Jaspers to win the MAAC championship the following year, with Manhattan turning the tables in 2014.

"We have a long way to go," Masiello said three years ago tonight. "We want to be Iona, to be honest. We look up to them."

His eventual superstar guard, however, had words that resonated even louder and longer.

"We're right there with them," George Beamon proclaimed, "and it's going to be a battle."

Three years later, no matter the record, no matter the backstory, it still is.

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