Pauly Paulicap led Manhattan with 16 points and 10 rebounds as Jaspers locked down Fairfield to win MAAC opener. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
RIVERDALE, NY -- Steve Masiello has said on more than one occasion, notably last February after his Manhattan team was defeated by Monmouth in a grind-it-out defensive war, that when a team can win with less than its A-game, it was a sign of something special to come.
How the remainder of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season will play out remains to be seen, but if Saturday's league opener was any indication, the effort put forth by the Jaspers for 40 minutes resembled a harbinger of future promise.
Led by 16 points and 10 rebounds from Pauly Paulicap, who amassed his first double-double of the season, Manhattan was equally as productive on the defensive end, holding visiting Fairfield to just 35 percent shooting and conceding just five three-point field goals on the night en route to a 61-58 victory over the Stags at Draddy Gymnasium.
"It was a hard-fought league victory, but you don't expect it any other way," a candid Masiello stated after the Jaspers (6-7, 1-0 MAAC) won their opening game of MAAC play for the first time since their 2013-14 conference championship season, and third time in his seven-year tenure. "I thought it was a game where we did all things we were supposed to do from a defensive standpoint."
In a game where neither team led by more than seven points, it was clear from the start that the atmosphere played into Manhattan's hands, even as Fairfield (6-7, 1-1 MAAC) got a career-best game from Jonathan Kasibabu, who posted 14 points and 13 rebounds in the losing effort. To the Stags' credit, they were able to outscore Manhattan 22-12 over the final 10:11 of the first half, taking advantage of Tyler Nelson leading the charge en route to a 30-26 halftime lead just two nights removed from a defensive war against Saint Peter's on their home floor in Bridgeport.
Fairfield opened its largest lead of the night less than two minutes out of the intermission, going up by a 34-28 score on a Matija Milin layup. But on the ensuing possession, Paulicap rose to the occasion, securing an offensive rebound off a miss from Aaron Walker and tipping it in to start a 12-0 run that swung the pendulum back in Manhattan's favor, the end result of that stretch being a 40-34 Jasper lead with 14:26 to play in regulation.
"I come in every game looking to do my job, and that's just to protect the rim; and if not, grab rebounds," said Paulicap of his mindset over his first two months at the Division I level. "I don't look to do anything more, I just try to do my job, and that's all defense. Whatever I get offensively is just a plus."
"Pauly reminds me a lot of Rhamel Brown," Rich Williams said, echoing the similarly imposing presence of one of Manhattan's greatest defensive players. "Everything about him: He's selfless, he's the best teammate, the best big man we have in this league in my opinion, without a doubt. He understands his job, and I'm just happy to have him. He's just a great person to be around, on and off the court."
The game was far from over at that juncture, though, as the Stags ripped off an 11-2 spurt that regained the lead three minutes later, a 45-42 edge. But in the next back-and-forth sequence, the Jaspers scored eight of the next ten points to poke their heads in front once more, as Tom Capuano's three-pointer from the right wing with 7:46 on the clock broke a 47-all tie. A layup by Milin pulled Fairfield within one before Manhattan scored six unanswered points to open up a three-possession cushion punctuated by a Calvin Crawford three-pointer with 3:55 to go.
The visitors would not go away quietly, however, as Nelson's triple with 1:39 remaining, the only field goal the Stags would convert from distance in the second half, cut a six-point deficit in half and trimmed the Jasper lead to 57-54. The senior guard and MAAC Preseason Player of the Year would strike again on the next trip down the floor, stripping the ball from Zavier Turner and finishing a layup himself to pull Fairfield within one. Both teams would trade points over the next minute, with Williams making two free throws before Kasibabu's layup in traffic, preceded by two offensive rebounds, made for a one-point game with 16.4 ticks left on the clock.
Leading 59-58, Turner made two free throws after being fouled by Jerome Segura, extending the lead to three as Fairfield needed to travel the length of the floor for the tie after calling its final timeout following Kasibabu's basket. But a three-point attempt by Nelson, which left his hands after the buzzer and would not have counted had it gone in, bounced off the front of the rim to seal the win for Manhattan in a vintage effort from the former two-time defending league champions.
"It's buy-in," said Masiello of the prospects of strong team defense revealing themselves early in the conference season. "It's understanding your defense is going to win you games. We were flat tonight, for whatever reason. We've come off breaks and played well. I didn't think it was our A-game, but again, our defense won the game. It's better than being 0-1."
"I'll keep saying it, I'll take our defense when we defend like this," he added. "It'll get us a lot of victories, despite what everyone else says."