Ashton Pankey's surge has helped Manhattan win four straight and 10 of 13 going into pivotal matchup at Rider. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Fuhrmann of the Manhattan College Quadrangle)
More than halfway through his junior season, Ashton Pankey is not only living up to expectations, he is also playing some of his best basketball.
With double-figure scoring games in all but one game over the last month, the casual basketball fan will no doubt concur that this is what Manhattan recruited the Bronx native for following his transfer from Maryland three years ago, when the 6-10 forward looked for a change of scenery following Mark Turgeon's first season of replacing Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams in College Park. But as any close follower of the Jaspers will tell you, there is more than meets the eye when discussing Pankey's emergence this season; not just as the tag team partner of Emmy Andujar when leading Manhattan's offense, but also in terms of his mental development and basketball acumen.
"A lot of the teams, what they're doing is stacking in," Pankey revealed with regard to how he has been defended in recent games, his last being an 18-point, 9-rebound effort to help the Jaspers defeat Canisius on Friday. "I can't really get offense on that, because it's so hard. We have to have shooters in the game, and the spacing's not always right, but I let the game come to me. Defensively, I just wanted to set the tone."
"He (Pankey) is a much more dominant low post player offensively," Steve Masiello differentiated, "and that's no knock on Rhamel. Rhamel was a shot blocker. Rhamel had an unbelievable craft that he was just one of the best I've ever seen at, but you look at AP's line tonight, (Friday) he goes and gets you 18, nine, and three blocks. I'll take that as much as I can get it from him. That's phenomenal, and a phenomenal attitude. You look in the first half, yeah, he had 10 in the first half, but he was getting everyone involved."
Since a season-low two points at Canisius on January 4 dipped his scoring average below 10 points per game, Pankey has become a machine, amassing at least 11 points in eight of Manhattan's last nine games, going for 18 or more in six of them as the Jaspers have won four straight and ten of their last thirteen. With an average of over 16 points and six rebounds in that stretch, as well as nearly two blocked shots and a 56 percent success rate from the field, the concerns about finding a third scorer behind Andujar and Shane Richards have been mitigated, and could not have come at a better time. Now, Pankey takes his resurgence to southern New Jersey this afternoon, where the Jaspers will look to avenge a bitter overtime loss to Rider three weeks ago in which the Broncs shot 57 percent from the floor at Draddy Gymnasium and got a balanced scoring effort to barely squeak by the reigning MAAC champions. In that game on January 18, Pankey registered 18 points and seven rebounds on 7-of-10 shooting, and arguably got the better of a challenging matchup in seven-foot center Matt Lopez, Rider's leading scorer and rebounder.
Sitting to his immediate left in Manhattan's postgame press conference two nights ago, Pankey's coach; as he has done with the program he inherited in 2011, built the foundation laid before him, and offered a more intimate look at the improvement of his pupil.
"The difference in him," Masiello began, "is he's coming to me now in timeouts and he's saying 'Mas, the weak side's sitting there. Let's get Shane on the weak side and get him a three.' A year ago, it was 'throw me the ball.' Now, he's coming to me, telling me, 'Hey, let's all just be calm. We're gonna get this win.' He's calming us down at times, so that's the maturity of Ashton Pankey now. You talk about becoming a student of the game, I couldn't be prouder of him."