Rich Williams has sparked Manhattan's late surge, averaging 25 points over his last two games heading into pivotal showdown with Iona. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/Manhattan College Athletics)
Win or lose, two words have come to define Manhattan College basketball over the years: Defense and culture.
The former is ubiquitous in every facet of the Jaspers' on-court demeanor, forging an identity built on the fearless nature and unrelenting tone of a New York-centric core whose imports have wasted little time adopting the ways of the native sons. The latter is but an intangible, a quality that serves as a shining beacon through the obscure points of the journey, an indelible bond and a permanent adhesive.
The defense is interwoven into the culture, and together, both have returned Manhattan from the doldrums of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference into more familiar territory toward the top of the conference standings. And as the calendar prepares to flip from February into March, a time symbolic of the synergy and fusion reaching a crescendo in and around Riverdale, players and coaches alike know what time it is, so to speak.
"We know the time is winding down, so our sense of urgency is going up now," Rich Williams said as the Jaspers (13-15, 8-8 MAAC) embark upon their final regular-season road trip, making the short trek into Westchester County Friday to face longtime adversary Iona at 9 p.m. "It hasn't been up, so I'm getting whatever is coming to me, and it's been working out well the last two games."
Williams, a fifth-year senior cognizant of the eleventh hour in which his collegiate career has now entered, has thrust his game into another gear in recent weeks, scoring a career-high 29 points against Quinnipiac eight days ago before backing it up this past Sunday with 21 points in a win over Niagara that provided a significant boost to Manhattan's chance of earning a first-round bye in next week's MAAC Tournament, which has been described by his head coach in the past as "all that matters," but is still on the back burner for another several days.
"We're not even thinking about that right now," Steve Masiello boldly stated, focusing on the first order of business that awaits he and his players. "All we're worried about is whoever is the next team on our schedule. That's it. We'll worry about the conference tournament next Sunday. We've got 80 more minutes of basketball in this regular season that we're going to concentrate on."
Those 80 minutes begin with an Iona team that has taken five straight meetings with the Jaspers and seven of eight, Manhattan's 2015 MAAC championship victory the only score for the residents of Draddy Gymnasium in that stretch. Add the Gaels' record on their home floor in New Rochelle, where Manhattan has won only once under Masiello's watch; in his first season on an Emmy Andujar buzzer-beating three-pointer in 2012, and the margin for error becomes even more minuscule. With that said, the attention to detail in practice has grown even more meticulous.
"I'd say there's about 16-17 mistakes we've got to fix, just little things of mental focus that when you get in tournament time, that separates you advancing," Masiello said, with one eye on the prize at the end of the road, yet fully invested in the order that stands before the Jaspers on Friday. "When you understand that it's four minutes to go, the game's on the line and we're not giving a guy his strong hand, it matters, and that affects winning. Those are the things we want to clean up."
"There's so much potential left in this team," he added. "It's my job to get it out of them, and I think we're pushing it in the right direction. I think we're going in the right direction. If you look at our last four games, I think we're playing good basketball."