SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — This being the one-and-done time of the college basketball season, things can get a little heated in the halftime locker room. How emotional was it today, I asked Chris Manhertz.
“I can’t say it without expletives,” Manhertz said. “So I’m not going to go there. My teammates pretty much got into me.”
Manhertz is one of four Canisius seniors. He’s 6-6, 235 pounds of chiseled mayhem. If his teammates were brave enough to jump on his case at halftime, you know the circumstances demanded it.
The halftime box score confirmed it. After 20 minutes of the MAAC quarterfinal against Siena, Manhertz had zero points and hadn’t even attempted a shot. He had the same number of turnovers, two, as rebounds. The Griffs’ most physical player was a no-show.
So yeah, the guys laid into him.
“Yeah, that’s what you need!” Manhertz said. “You need it from people like Chris Perez and Billy Baron, as senior leaders. Nobody’s perfect. We encourage each other, and I responded well to that.”
He responded, all right. From the opening tip of the second half, Manhertz played with renewed urgency and passion, like a player who realized his career might be near an end, like a Manhertz possessed.
Manhertz, wearing a clear mask to protect a broken nose suffered a month ago against Manhattan, had all 10 of his points and nine of his game-high 11 rebounds after halftime to lead the Griffs over the Saints, 71-65, and into their first MAAC semifinal in 12 years.
“I told him to get tighter to the basket and make a conscious effort to get inside,” said coach Jim Baron. “They didn’t have an answer for him. He’s a difference-maker. To be successful, we’ve got to go inside-out. It’s the league we’re in. Everybody has physical presence.”
That’s especially true in a conference tournament, which can be a three-day war of attrition. Teams with a strong inside presence have a better chance of surviving. It’s rare to make a championship run by relying mainly on outside shooting and finesse play.
So even though the Griffs had shot 8 for 13 from three-point range in the first half, Baron knew the three ball was fool’s gold. They had just two two-point hoops in the first half. They had to exert their will inside.
Manhertz took care of that. On the first possession, he rebounded his own miss and scored. Then he ripped down a defensive board and swung his arms in defiance, as if telling the Saints he was staking out his old territory under the glass.
When the game was there for the taking, Manhertz snatched it. He put back his own missed shot to give Canisius a 60-58 lead with 4:16 to play. Rob Poole nailed a three to put Siena back on top, 61-60.
Canisius freshman Zach Lewis missed a three, but Manhertz was there again. He ripped down the rebound and got hacked on the follow, knocking his mask awry. He sank both free throws to put the Griffs back on top, 62-61. They never trailed again.
“In the first half, I think I did a pretty bad job of rebounding,” Manhertz said. “But give Siena credit, they got me out of sync and took an early charge. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Fortunately, I responded to it.”
Manhertz said last week that it might take awhile for the gravity of the tournament to sink in, for him to realize that he could be one loss away from the end of his career.
“It really did start to set in,” Manhertz said. “It hits hard when you hit adversity and you finally realize, ‘It’s either this or go home.’ So we’re not ready to go home yet, and Lord willing, we can carry this thing all the way to Monday night.”
Simply getting to Sunday has been a colossal hurdle for Canisius over the years. They hadn’t won a MAAC quarterfinal since 2002, when Brian Dux scored the last 13 points of regulation to get them to overtime and Hodari Mallory won it at the buzzer in OT.
You don’t forget those moments. This Canisius team, with four seniors and a league Player of the Year in Billy Baron, is trying to forge a more lasting and powerful memory here at the MassMutual Center.
Manhertz is the only Griff who has been around for four years. But when Tom Parrotta was fired after his sophomore year, the Bronx native thought about transferring out of the program.
“I considered it,” Manhertz said, “but my intuition told me to stick it out and see what happened. And fortunately, I made the right decision.”
Manhertz, who turns 22 next month, is scheduled to get his master’s degree in sports administration in May. On the court, he’s been a solid, accountable presence, only the second three-year captain in program history.
There’s nothing fancy about his game. But the Griffs are at their best when Manhertz is having his inelegant way around the hoop, crashing the boards and complementing the team’s perimeter talents.
Baron is the big star, the face of the program. But when Manhertz is thriving down low, battling taller big men, it gives the Griffs more of an edge to their personality.
The mask provides an added look of menace. Manhertz said he’s been teased to no end about it. (Hey, LeBron James scored 61 points with the clear mask. Why can’t you?)
“Oh, I’ve heard it all,” Manhertz said with a laugh. “But you don’t hear me complain. My peripheral vision is a bit skewed, but I’m getting used to it. I have no choice. It takes six weeks for this thing to heal.”
He’d love the chance to wear it in an NCAA Tournament game.