Sunday, November 12, 2017

Manhattan's first championship legacy resonates 25 years later

Chris Williams poses with MAAC championship game net after Manhattan won its first conference title in 1993. His Jasper team was honored Saturday night with induction into college's Hall of Fame. (Photo by Chris Williams)

Manhattan College enters the 2017-18 season as one of the favorites in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, picked second among the 11-team league behind only reigning champion Iona. Should the Jaspers leave the Times Union Center with a championship trophy in March, it would be the sixth MAAC crown to occupy a permanent residence in the Draddy Gymnasium trophy case, continuing a tradition of winning that took root a quarter-century ago, when Manhattan first burst onto the national scene with its 1992-93 team that avenged a championship game loss one year prior with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the first in school history. An at-large berth and an upset of fourth-seeded Oklahoma followed two years later to cement head coach Fran Fraschilla as the next big star in the coaching ranks, as his run in Riverdale was enough to secure the head coaching position at St. John's when the then-newly-christened Red Storm decided to replace former Lou Carnesecca assistant, and Manhattan alumnus, Brian Mahoney.

The 1992-93 men's basketball team remains one of the enduring legacies in Manhattan College history, and received its latest testimonial Saturday night when the team was jointly inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. Before this year's Jaspers take flight Wednesday night against St. Francis Brooklyn, we invite you to look back at the group that ushered in the current era of prosperity 25 years ago.

***

Going into the 1992-93 season, Manhattan College still had a chip on its shoulder from how the previous year ended.

The Jaspers had won 25 games, including a pair in the National Invitation Tournament, but were denied the chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament in a bitter one-point loss to La Salle in the MAAC championship game as the Explorers became the first program in conference history to win three straight conference championships, a feat since matched by Siena nearly two decades later. The relative success was enough for head coach Steve Lappas to receive a higher payday and greater challenge at Villanova, but even with a new leader, the outlook remained positive.

"No question about it," said Chris Williams, a senior guard on the 1992-93 team who is now the color analyst on Manhattan's radio broadcasts, when asked if there was a sense of something special on the horizon entering the season. "We felt really good. We thought we had really got our swagger, and what I mean by that was we learned how to win that previous year. In '92, we had won a lot of close games, we had really good senior leadership in Russ Williams, Charles Dubra, Dave Bernsley. But my class had been called the founding class, including Keith (Bullock), myself, Carey Edwards, Carey Wilson and Erik Gottlieb, so we knew we were up to bat."

"Coming into that season, we knew there was a lot of pressure on our shoulders, but we were up to the task."
- Chris Williams

In Lappas' place, Fran Fraschilla was hired to take the reins of the Jaspers and preserve the winning ways the program had recently developed. Only 34 years old at the time of his debut in December 1992, the former assistant to Gary Williams at Ohio State and Rick Barnes at Providence represented a new voice in the locker room, which could be difficult for a veteran team to overcome. However, the roster he inherited was able to mesh with their new leader, and well enough to win six of their first seven games at that.

"I give Coach Fran a tremendous amount of credit, because when he came in, he put a lot of the onus of -- just, I guess, responsibility, on the shoulders of Keith and I as the captains of the team," Williams recounted. "And we worked really well together. He didn't come in as a dictator. We worked hand in hand, he asked us a lot of questions about the team, and at least for me personally, he allowed me to get my confidence back, because my junior year wasn't a great year. I knew coming into my senior year, I really wanted to contribute and be the leader of this team. He allowed me to lead, and it worked out really well for the team."

Manhattan came into MAAC play at 8-4 on the season, and even after losing their conference opener at Niagara, the Jaspers were able to salvage a split of the arduous Western New York trip by defeating Canisius two days later to start a nine-game win streak and a stretch of 12 wins in 13 games that brought about a sense of invincibility to a group of players that could sense they were the team to beat.

"There was a stretch in there where we lost to Niagara, and that Buffalo trip is one of the tougher trips in the MAAC," Williams recalled, "and they caught us when we weren't playing good basketball." "But during that stretch, and once we got our roll going during the season, we really felt we were the team to beat."

Led by four double-digit scorers in Bullock, Edwards, Jamal Marshall and Brenton Birmingham, plus the steady hand of Williams; who averaged nearly four assists per game from the point guard spot, the Jaspers powered past Loyola in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament before eking out a one-point victory against Siena on their home floor at the Times Union Center to set up a rubber match with Niagara for the conference title.

"Going into that game, our thought process was that we probably could beat this team because they beat us really bad at their place, we snuck out a close one at our place. We felt that this third one was our turn."
- Chris Williams

***

In a back-and-forth battle on the first Sunday in March 1993, Niagara and Manhattan went toe-to-toe for over 35 minutes, with the Purple Eagles seizing a seven-point lead heading into the final four minutes of the game. 

"Niagara was a tough team for us because of the matchups," Williams said of the Purple Eagles. "They really jumped on us early. They came out really well, making a lot of shots, putting us in some tough situations. I believe we were down ten points at halftime, but we came back, we slowed the game down. We started playing our style of ball."

The Jaspers would battle back, however, going on a 9-2 run to tie the game and holding what appeared to be the final possession in regulation. With 2.6 seconds remaining on the clock, Williams was fouled, and headed to the free throw line for two shots. In a story that has gained its own legend in and around Riverdale, the Philadelphia native missed the first shot, but lived up to his nickname of "Smooth" by making the second, giving Manhattan a 68-67 lead. Niagara could not convert on a game-winning attempt in the waning seconds, and the Jaspers had their first-ever taste of championship glory.

"I gotta give credit to Keith Bullock," said the effusively selfless Williams. "He had probably one of his better games as a MAAC player, 30-plus points. We jumped on his back and we rode him. I was just fortunate enough to be at the free throw line at the end."

"I had to add that dramatic effect," he quipped with regard to the missed foul shot. "I wouldn't be known as 'Smooth' if I didn't miss one and make one and come through."

***

Twelve days separated Manhattan's MAAC championship victory from their opening game in the NCAA Tournament. With no social media, Internet, or bracketology in the early 1990s, it was more intriguing in the run up to Selection Sunday, and the Jaspers took the time to prepare for prospective opponents by watching as much of the other conference tournaments as they could, all the while basking in their own success.

"The good thing about the MAAC Tournament is we played our game early," Williams recollected. "We had some time to sit back and watch all the different teams play to get into the tournament. We were in early, and it felt really good to see our names there on CBS. Each game, and each team that played to get into the tournament, our name was already there."

"You hear broadcasters, announcers saying, 'Manhattan's already in, they punched their ticket already,' so you could sit back and enjoy that process. For us, I think we were just so excited about getting in." - Chris Williams

"If you harken back to that '92 season, we make it to the championship game, but that was the first time that a Manhattan College team had won a MAAC Tournament game," he said. "It took a lot to get that far, so we were excited to be in the tournament to represent our conference, to represent the school, and I think we were just excited to be there. Coach Fran had us prepared."

Manhattan received the No. 11 seed in the East Regional and was dispatched to Syracuse to face the University of Virginia, the sixth seed. Coached by Jeff Jones, the Cavaliers possessed an imposing interior duo of Junior Burrough and Ted Jeffries to go with a future first-round NBA draft pick in guard Cory Alexander. Despite the perceived talent difference, the Jaspers headed to the Carrier Dome with their confidence at its usual high. And although Virginia came away with a 78-66 victory, the impact of the season and its accomplishments were not lost on a group of players that had finally broken through.

"I thought we matched up very well with that team," Williams stated of the differences between his team and their opponent. "They were a younger team against a team like us, who had some good senior leadership. I think it was prepared for us to be in a position to win in a first-round game. We came up short, but we were just excited and happy that we were there and we at least achieved the goal of winning the MAAC, regular season and postseason, and at least getting to the NCAA Tournament."

***

Manhattan has gone on to four more MAAC championships and NCAA Tournament appearances since Fraschilla won the conference in his first season and secured the league's first-ever at-large bid two years later. The 2003 and 2004 championship years of Bobby Gonzalez, and the latest pieces of hardware won in 2014 and 2015 under Steve Masiello have only enhanced the basketball tradition, which can all be traced back to the veteran 1992-93 unit.

"It's an accomplishment in itself because coming into Manhattan, we weren't a good basketball team," said Williams. "We were one of the worst teams in our conference, and probably one of the worst teams in basketball. Fortunately for Coach Lappas, he brought in a very good class, and the athletic director at the time; Mr. Bob Byrnes, did a tremendous job also, the president; Brother Scanlan -- all of us worked together. We had a really good relationship."

"We always joke, me and my class, 'We made it fashionable to come to Manhattan again.'
- Chris Williams

"When you set that stage, when you allow people to see you're a good team with good players and you're coming into a good situation, all those guys that came in after us were players that we recruited. When they came in, we took them out on their recruiting trips and they liked what was going on there, so they thought it was a good idea to come to Manhattan. That's one of the things that I'm really proud of, that we made it fashionable to come to Manhattan. To say you played for the Jaspers, to wear the green and white, it wasn't a bad thing anymore."

"That's the thing I really loved about our team. If you took us one by one, you could individually say, 'this person should have been an all-MAAC contender.' In our four years, not every one of us was an all-MAAC player or at least considered that, but when we're honored as a group; the 1992-93 team being a Hall of Fame team, we all shine."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an excellent "memories" article.
    The Jaspers had been awful for several years before Steve Lappas took over. He made them respectable and then Fraschilla took over. And that began the renaissance of modern Manhattan basketball...

    ReplyDelete