As the season progressed and the losses started to mount, MAAC followers had to wonder what was up with Manhattan.
How could a team that went to the conference title game last season lose four of its first 12 conference starts this time around, including one to last-place Fairfield?
How is it that the conference’s preseason favorite was struggling despite the return of leading scorer George Beamon from last year’s season-ending injury and the addition of 6-10 Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey? The on-court results just weren’t adding up.
It was about this time last year when the Jaspers turned around their season and made their unexpected postseason run.
And judging from Friday night’s 84-73 victory over Canisius at the Koessler Athletic Center, it appears the Jaspers are gearing up for another strong finish.
Manhattan (16-6, 9-4) was the better team in almost every aspect as it snapped the Griffs’ four-game winning streak and dropped them out of a first-place tie with Iona. Not even a sellout crowd could help will the Griffs (16-8, 10-3) all the way back after the Jaspers bolted out to leads of 15-1 and 32-16.
Canisius closed within two late in the first half and within five with about six minutes remaining but lacked the finishing kick against a program that hangs its hat on its defense.
The Jaspers made Billy Baron work for every inch of space and the constant harassment combined with a 40-minute workload took a toll on the nation’s fifth-leading scorer. Baron finished with 22 points but only seven of those came in the second half.
It’s not like he was rendered ineffective, as his seven assists and seven rebounds show. But he definitely wasn’t himself late, as evidenced by the fact he missed three of four free throws in one stretch.
It was an unprecedented occurrence. Baron hadn’t missed more than one free throw in a game all season.
“Our thing was we wanted to run people at him and not give him a steady diet of anything,” said Manhattan coach Steve Masiello. “We wanted to switch up our man, our zones, our trap, our blitzes, our switches, constantly keep him on his toes and make him more have to read us than react to us.”
“It was a physical game,” Baron said. “It was a grind. That’s how that team is. That’s how that coach has them play. They’re great. They work together. They’re not the most talented bunch but they work together and they fight and they fought us tonight.”
Beamon and Pankey both had major impacts on the outcome. Beamon scored a game-high 27 points to go with four assists and was 5 of 9 on three-pointers. Pankey was dominant underneath. He scored 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds and recorded five of Manhattan’s 12 blocks. The rejections seemed to prey on the confidence of Canisius’ post players. Jordan Heath was just 2 of 9 from the field with six boards and none of those came on the offensive end as Manhattan won the glass by a resounding 46-32.
“Our bigs were phenomenal protecting tonight,” Masiello said. “Twelve blocks. Our thing is to run them off the three-point line.”
“Their bigs have a presence down there but it’s not much that we haven’t seen before,” Jordan Heath said. “I obviously missed some shots I usually make.”
Guards Zach Lewis and Dominique Raney stepped up in support of Baron, with Raney scoring 15 points and Lewis 13. That wasn’t enough to offset the limited production inside and the large rebounding discrepancy.
“It seemed like from the jump ball … we came out flat for whatever reason,” Griffs coach Jim Baron said. “They’re a good team. They’re picked to win the league. They got guys that can score. We’re limited. We made great comebacks, we showed a lot of grit, but to beat good teams you got to do a lot of small things. We missed free throws. We missed layups. Turned the ball over at crucial times. You just can’t do that.”
The loss, coupled with Iona’s dramatic comeback win at Niagara, knocked the Griffs out of a first-place tie with the Gaels. The two meet at 2 p.m. Sunday at the KAC.