Shane Richards' 17 points led all scorers, but were still not enough for Manhattan, whose season was halted abruptly by Hampton in NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)
Much was made about their seeding, and even more was made of a prospective matchup with the number one team in the nation that was still two days of becoming a reality for a team who fought hard both on and off the court to return to this stage. In the end, though, the clash with Kentucky that the pundits hyped will go down as but a dream.
Making their second consecutive appearance in the field of 68 after an improbable run to the MAAC championship, Manhattan faced a much stiffer matchup with MEAC champion Hampton than most expected in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament's First Four round. The Jaspers (19-14) pulled close to the Pirates many times throughout the night, but ultimately could not get over the hump, falling by the final of 74-64 in Dayton to leave the game that the national media could not help but to look ahead to among what could have been.
"We didn't play our brand of basketball," senior forward Emmy Andujar admitted after posting a valiant 11 points and eight rebounds in what turned out to be his final game in a Manhattan uniform. "They obviously wanted it more than us, and they stuck to their game plan."
Making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2011, Hampton (17-17) led wire-to-wire, scoring the first basket nearly a minute into the contest and never looking back, resisting the Jaspers' trademark pressure defense and taking smart, high-percentage shots inside the three-point line. Each time Manhattan crept closer, the Pirates would find a way to counterpunch, led by the efforts of Quinton Chievous, who posted 15 points and 13 rebounds while fighting through an apparent ankle injury that hindered his mobility in the latter stages of the second half. A three-pointer from Shane Richards, whose 17 points led all scorers, trimmed the Hampton lead to 51-48, but the resilient Pirates recovered with an 11-4 run to extend their advantage into double digits, making the hill too steep for the Jaspers to scale at the end.
"It happens," said Richards of a night where Manhattan made just six of the 25 three-point field goals they attempted, and made only 12 of their 21 free throws. "You make shots, you miss shots. Give them credit, they played a good game."
While it is now Hampton who advances to meet John Calipari and the undefeated Wildcats in Louisville, Manhattan now picks up the pieces of a year that began with uncertainty as to how their three leading scorers would be replaced, but ended with Steve Masiello's first recruiting class ending their Jasper careers with consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
"I couldn't be more proud of a group of seniors," a complimentary Masiello said of Andujar, RaShawn Stores and Donovan Kates. "If you would have told me four years ago that they would bring us to three MAAC championships, back-to-back NCAA appearances off a team that was 6-25, I would have signed up for and taken it in a minute. They've totally changed our culture and put Manhattan back on the map where it belongs as one of the better mid-major programs, and I'm extremely proud of that. It was a terrific year for us."