Rich Williams scored 21 points in first game since March 2016, and will be searching for encore as Manhattan hosts Harvard Saturday with 2-0 start at stake. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/Manhattan College Athletics)
RIVERDALE, NY -- Prior to Wednesday night's overtime victory, the last time Manhattan had won a season opener came four years prior, when they christened the 2013-14 campaign with a double-overtime triumph on the road against La Salle, the precursor to what would be a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship and near-upset of Louisville in the NCAA Tournament.
While history has repeated itself in the early stages of this young year, a Cinderella run through March is not immediately on deck for the Jaspers, whose path to a third conference championship in five years continues Saturday afternoon when Harvard visits Draddy Gymnasium for a 1 p.m. matinee.
"I remember in 2013-14, we opened up at La Salle in double overtime and then at Columbia (a game the Jaspers won on a miraculous display by George Beamon in the final seconds), and we really should have lost both games," head coach Steve Masiello recollected of Manhattan's last 2-0 start to a season. "I'm just really proud of these guys finding a way to win, and I think that's something to be said for them. When you find a way to kind of grind out games and get one, I'm really, really happy about that."
The Jaspers needed almost every second to survive a pesky St. Francis Brooklyn team that opened up a 10-point lead behind a scorching first half before being worn down as the game went on by Manhattan's experience and a 21-point game from Rich Williams, playing his first official game in over 20 months after missing all of last season due to a torn meniscus.
"It was a really gutty performance by him," Masiello declared. "I thought he came out full of a lot of fire and did a lot of things."
"You see it," he elaborated, referencing Williams' impact and once again being able to utilize it as a weapon in his reformed arsenal. "You see he's just a different guy on the basketball court. He's physically strong and makes shots, he has a mentality that fits our style, he calms us at times."
Long described as the heart and soul of Manhattan's trademark defensive intensity, Williams' presence on the floor instantly makes the Jaspers a stronger unit, but he cannot do it all. With that said, the rest of his teammates will be equally as vital to leading the way in pressuring a Harvard team that suffered its first loss of the year Thursday, falling on the road to a Holy Cross team that turned the Crimson over 23 times. The number of takeaways is one that Manhattan will no doubt be looking to equal, beginning by limiting the chances for sophomores Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns to explode at the expense of the suffocating pressure that has become a calling card in the northwest corner of the Bronx. But it will take a team effort to truly neutralize Tommy Amaker's roster, one that many feel will represent the Ivy League on Selection Sunday.
"We've got to make sure that we understand, and that's one of things when you have Rich and you have Z (Zavier Turner) and you have Aaron (Walker) -- you have all these guys, you can't forget about people," Masiello reassured. "As a coach and as players, you've got to make sure we're putting them in the right situations to be successful. I've got to do a better job of that."
"I think our press will get better. We'll get better. We had nine steals (against St. Francis Brooklyn), we didn't have as many deflections as we would like. We only had 27, we want that at 35. But the blueprint is there. I like a lot of things we're doing, I like our pieces. We'll get better as time goes."
*Special thanks to John Templon of NYC Buckets, whose quotes contributed to this story.