Manhattan 73, Harvard 69: Jaspers Hold On Again At Home

Heading into Saturday’s game at Draddy Gym, Manhattan’s path to victory seemed to run through its vaunted press. Its opponent, Harvard, was only 42 hours removed from an ugly 23-turnover performance in a loss at Holy Cross, leaving the Jaspers’ defense with an opportunity to feast.

Instead, the Crimson committed just 13 turnovers, only a handful of which were attributed to Manhattan’s pressure. The hosts committed 18 miscues of their own, and they blew a 17-point lead in the second half. Yet they won anyway, getting enough stops and hitting enough tough shots to eke out a 73-69 win.

“With our style, we’re going to have runs, and you have to be okay with that,” Manhattan coach Steve Masiello said. “What you can’t do is panic.”

Manhattan built its first-half lead on hot shooting, hitting six of seven three-pointers and making several more tough shots in the lane en route to a 40-point first half. That lead disappeared quickly after halftime, but the Jaspers’ shooting came back at the right moment. With two and a half minutes remaining, Rich Williams broke a tie with a heat-check three over Justin Bassey, the last of his game-high 20 points. On the next possession, Aaron Walker Jr. stepped back for a difficult fadeaway, dropping it through the net to ultimately seal the game.

The Jaspers’ defense also came through at key times, forcing two thrown-away cross-court passes in the final five minutes. Harvard’s star point guard, Bryce Aiken, was the focal point of Manhattan’s game plan and saw full-court pressure for nearly all of his 33 minutes. Aiken handled it admirably, committing only one turnover against four assists — but, perhaps worn down by the harassment, he shot just 4-13, missing a contested layup that would have tied the game in the waning seconds.

“The first thing Coach [Masiello] said when he saw me was, ‘Bryce is looking for you’,” said Walker, one of Aiken’s primary defenders. “I came in with the mindset to do whatever I’ve got to do to win.”

Expectations were high for the Jaspers entering the season, and so far they’ve lived up to the billing with two exciting wins. Masiello credited a boisterous student section for lifting the hosts on Saturday, but soon they’ll have to play in less friendly territory, starting with the Gulf Coast Showcase on Monday. The second-round game against either Georgia Southern or Missouri State will be another test, but the Jaspers have a path to rack up wins before MAAC play begins — as long as their hot shooting continues.

Three more thoughts from Draddy Gym:

1. Don’t read too much into the Crimson’s slow start. Late November is official overreaction season in college basketball — deep enough into the season for us to think we can see patterns, but not deep enough for them to actually mean much yet. The Crimson’s first-half swoon brought lots of concerned tweets, and it is now 2-2 with two unconvincing wins and two upset defeats.

But in the big picture, Harvard will be fine. The first-half deficit was driven almost entirely by three-point shooting — 6-7 for Manhattan, 2-15 for Harvard — and the visitors weren’t taking bad shots, they were just clanking corner three after corner three off every angle of the rim. The Crimson showed from the start that they could get open shots against pressure, and they finally started falling after halftime, when Seth Towns (17 points) and Corey Johnson hit three treys apiece.

“We evaluate the quality of the shot, and I think we’ve gotten quality shots,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “If we have quality shots, I feel like over the law of averages, over a long period of time, that it will turn in our favor.”

That’s not to say Harvard has no issues to address. This team isn’t yet as good as the ones that won Ivy titles earlier this decade — its defense has been up and down so far (it was sloppy in the first half Saturday before finding itself in the second), and the full rotation is still coming into shape. But the Crimson are still young and growing. “I’ll never schedule them in the next three years, so don’t even ask for a rematch,” Masiello said.

2. Calvin Crawford is a problem to guard. The 6-foot-9 senior led the Jaspers’ early run with 14 points, seven rebounds and two assists in the first half alone. He got his points in all kinds of ways — a tough runner moving left through the lane, a face-up jumper, a pick-and-pop three from miles of open space at the top of the key — and finished the game with 19 points on 13 shooting possessions to go with nine boards.

“He’s benefitting from playing with really good players,” Masiello said. “He’s doing a good job of defensive rebounding the basketball — that’s what I’m most proud of him about. He has to learn, when he’s making some shots, now to put it on the floor and go by people, because he should get to the rim and get to the foul line much more.”

3. Tommy Amaker had his annual YOLO game. After a disappointing loss to Holy Cross early in the fall of 2014, the Harvard head coach named five new starters for the next game against Florida Atlantic (only to return to his usual lineup after a few minutes). The following season, he shook up the lineup again for a late non-conference tilt at Howard. He brought the tradition back on Saturday, giving Christian Juzang, Rio Haskett, Reed Farley, Danilo Djuricic and Henry Welsh their first starts of the young season.

“We’re making a point that it’s not acceptable for the starters to start the way they did in the last game.”

It’s such a privilege and an honor to be a starter, and we have to adhere to that level and that standard. We were disappointed that our starters did not, so we made a change,” Amaker said. “We hoped that the starters who normally start, when we went back with them at the start of the second half, that they would regroup, and I thought they did that fairly well and gave us a chance to win.”

I wouldn’t say Amaker’s gambit worked — Harvard’s A-team was still flat in the first half, to the point that the bench lineup came back in for the final four minutes. It probably didn’t hurt much, either, as the score was 5-5 in about seven total minutes with the Crimson’s new lineup. Amaker has a reputation for getting too cute with rotations, especially in non-conference play, but eventually he needs to focus on giving his best players the most time to win games.

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