Rich Williams' 20 points led Manhattan and all scorers as Jaspers led by as many as 18 and then had to come back after giving up second-half run to Harvard, surviving Crimson to open season 2-0. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/Manhattan College Athletics)
RIVERDALE, NY -- Last season, Manhattan was ultimately defined by an inability to respond to playing from behind. En route to a 10-22 record, there were repeated instances where the Jaspers seemingly lost their composure when trailing by two or more possessions, often seeing the game in front of them spiral out of control.
Now owners of one of the more experienced outfits in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and a reinvigorated commitment to returning to the postseason for a third time in five seasons, the response to a six-point deficit with just over six minutes remaining in regulation was a resolve similar to the fights forged by the championship-winning units of 2013-14 and 2014-15.
After visiting Harvard came storming back from the 18-point hole they had dug themselves to open up their aforementioned six-point cushion, it was Manhattan who flipped the game on its head, unleashing a 10-2 run in just over four minutes to defeat the Crimson by the final of 73-69 in front of a raucous Draddy Gymnasium crowd.
"The things I questioned about this team, they've shown me two games in a row now," Steve Masiello proudly remarked as the Jaspers (2-0) received 20 points from Rich Williams and 19 from Calvin Crawford to open the season with consecutive wins for the first time since their championship campaign of 2013-14, when La Salle and Columbia were the first of 25 teams to come up short against Manhattan. "A big part of that is Rich and the seniors, and that's just their ability to handle adversity. We talk about that a lot. I think really good teams, when they can handle adversity, that says a lot. It's not about your talent or what play you run, it's the mentality."
For a large portion of Saturday afternoon's matinee, it appeared as though adversity would not come into play for the home team, who took advantage of Harvard (2-2) being unable to find a comfort zone through a first half that started evenly portioned before the Jaspers' 1-2-2 matchup defense rattled the Crimson and created Manhattan's first major offensive opportunity, a 9-2 run started by Williams and punctuated by Crawford to swing the pendulum into the Jaspers' hands in the form of a 19-12 advantage. Harvard pulled within three points shortly thereafter, but Manhattan countered with a 17-2 outburst for their largest lead of the day, a 40-22 edge that became 40-25 at the intermission as the Crimson connected on a three-pointer by Danilo Djuricic moments before the horn.
The visitors' fortunes would improve out of the intermission, as Harvard; after spotting Tom Capuano the first points of the second stanza, scored the next 12 unanswered in a run that began and ended with Bryce Aiken, one of four players with double-digit point totals for the Crimson with 12 points on the day, helping to close the gap. This stretch was part of a 37-13 spurt bridging the end of the first half with the majority of the second half, a period of the game that culminated in a 59-53 Harvard lead with 6:11 to play after a 16-3 run put Manhattan in a two-possession hole.
But the Jaspers recovered, scoring six straight points to tie the game at 59, first on an Aaron Walker three-pointer before a pair of Crawford free throws and one out of two at the line from Zavier Turner. Harvard poked their heads in front again on a Rio Haskett three-pointer with 4:12 on the clock, but it was the last lead the Crimson would enjoy. Following two more free throws by Walker, the sophomore would strike again from the left wing, burying a three after Turner kicked it out to him from under the rim. Harvard pulled even once again on two foul shots by Chris Lewis, but Williams' fifth trifecta nearly a minute later provided the final lead change and the Brooklyn native's second career stretch of back-to-back 20-point games.
Ahead by three, at 67-64 with just over two minutes remaining in regulation, Manhattan added an extra two points on a fadeaway jumper by Walker, but were not completely out of the woods as the Crimson pulled within one on a Seth Towns trey with 63 seconds left. Turner split a pair of free throws to extend the lead to two in the final minute, leaving Harvard with a chance to tie, but Aiken's attempt at a layup fell off the rim and into the arms of Zane Waterman, who sank two free throws for the final margin on the scoreboard.
Manhattan was buoyed by a 10-for-17 performance from beyond the arc, with Williams accounting for half the triples while Crawford; who added 10 rebounds to his point total for a double-double, and Walker added three and two of their own, respectively. For Harvard, Towns led the way with 17 in a losing effort as the Jaspers held on to win a game that last season's team may have been unable to seal.
"With our style, you're gonna have runs," Masiello cautioned. "And you've got to be okay with that. We're gonna give up runs, and we call it fool's gold. But what you can't do is panic, and he (Williams) doesn't panic. I was really impressed with Rich's ability to lead us through adversity. That's the question mark I've had and so far, two times out, we've handled it well. We have a lot, a lot of room of improvement that we've got to work at, and we will."