Walking up West 242nd Street toward Manhattan College in the Bronx on Saturday night made our little group, two dads and three sons, feel like we'd caught up to the leading edge of New York City's excitement. The Iona Gaels were down from New Rochelle to play the Manhattan Jaspers, both teams' rosters full of city players, both teams tied at 10-2 atop the MAAC.
Twitter reported that a scalped ten-dollar general admission ticket into Draddy Gymnasium cost $150. We were handed green Jaspers t-shirts as we came through the turnstiles which we balled up and stuck in our jacket pockets. We'd come to witness, not to root.
This was not true of the rest of the crowd. When Iona's Scott Machado, the Division I assists leader and national darling (see Dick Vitale's mention of him during Kansas-Missouri game) missed a pregame dunk in the Iona lay-up line, the Manhattan students at both end of the court, their shirts not in their pockets, began a chant of his name that would keep up all evening. Manhattan coach Steve Maseillo didn't put his team on the floor until two minutes before the tip, stoking the frenzy in the building.
The first half was fast and brilliant.
Manhattan, despite their drastic turnaround under Masiello from last season, does not have an overwhelming physical presence. They are not big. They play a 2-3 zone, a configuration which has made them the best MAAC team in defense and rebounding. They are led on offense by George Beamon, listed at 6-4 and 170 lbs., with most of that weight hiding somewhere in the folds of his uniform. He has long arms and runs on his toes, and could pass for one of the vaunted Manhattan half-milers who also inhabit Draddy. His strange shooting form makes him look like a member of the track team as well, his body rotating hard to the left as if being shoved in the ribs during the shot's release. He ran the shorter Iona guards east-west off screens, finding open 3-point shots which he did not miss.
Iona, however, is the league's real stud. Directed by Machado or by Momo Jones when Manhattan's three-quarter court press was able to keep the ball out of Machado's hands, Iona played north-south: transitioning hard after defensive rebounds, looking to Mike Glover down low in their half-court sets, and even once combining the two approaches when Glover, the biggest and nastiest presence on the court, took a rebound and rumbled nearly coast to coast - no, no, no, yes! - and found Momo for a lay-up, completing a play that I'm sure coach Tim Cluess would rather see work in reverse - Jones leading the break to Glover.
My friend, quoting either his own banking background or Knicks' color commentator Clyde Frazier, said, "Iona can diversify."
But Beamon didn't miss more than once in the first half, and Manhattan rode the emotion of its students to stay in it. After his fourth or fifth in a row, including the 1,000th point of his college career, my son and his friends pulled their Jaspers shirts on.
Iona led 44-38 at halftime.
The feel of the second half was different. Iona went on two runs - scoring the first three baskets of the half and then later completing an 11-point run, much of while Machado was on the bench with an injury, accented by a Glover dunk. On the play Glover was poked in the eye; he writhed on the baseline before joining Machado on the bench. Iona led 60-46, but the game felt within reach.
Manhattan could make nothing of this opening. Coach Cluess switched Iona into a zone, an atypical response to a team with a great shooter but one which worked because he stationed tall players at the wings. Beamon could not get a good look at the basket. In half-miler speak, he was boxed in. Manhattan's half court sets fizzled.
Machado returned. He drove into the paint, confusing the back line of Manhattan's zone by looking one way and passing another. He fed off the crowd's negative attention, at one point inbounding in front of the student section while nodding his head to the beat of the derisive chant of his name. He hit two three-pointers, not usually a part of his game, for good measure.
The Jaspers and their crowd stayed with it, perhaps living off the memory of the January meeting between the two teams when Iona blew an eighteen point lead, allowing Manhattan to win at the final second and ignite their season. And they may have also sensed Iona's one weakness as the MAAC heads into the final stretch: they play a little too loose. They argue with each other, they chat endlessly with the officials, they gesture to the crowd. At the eight-minute mark, with Iona leading 73-55, Machado threw a harebrained alley-oop in Glover's direction that was caught by the second row of the band. Cluess looked at his star: Really? But it didn't matter. Iona held on to win 85-73. It didn't really matter. Not tonight.
IONA 85, at MANHATTAN 73 02/04/2012
IONA 19-5 (11-2) -- D. Burton 5-12 6-7 18; M. Glover 7-10 5-7 19; L. Jones 6-14 5-7 18; S. Machado 5-7 6-8 18; T. Ridley 3-7 1-3 7; S. Armand 4-9 4-4 14; K. Smyth 1-5 0-0 2; R. Dezouvre 2-3 3-4 7; J. Jenkins 0-0 0-0 0; R. James 0-0 0-0 0; T. Fields 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-55 24-33 85. MANHATTAN 17-8 (10-3) -- G. Beamon 8-15 7-7 26; M. Alvarado 3-11 0-0 7; K. Brutus 4-13 0-0 12; E. Andujar 3-9 0-0 7; R. Colonette 2-6 2-2 6; R. Brown 4-6 0-2 8; D. Kates 1-1 0-1 2; L. McCabe-Moran 2-3 0-0 5; M. Koita 0-1 0-0 0; D. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; D. Coulibaly 0-1 0-0 0; K. Laue 0-0 0-0 0; R. McCoy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-67 9-12 73.
Three-point goals: IONA 5-16 (S. Machado 2-3; K. Smyth 0-3; L. Jones 1-4; S. Armand 2-6), MAN 10-30 (L. McCabe-Moran 1-2; G. Beamon 3-7; M. Koita 0-1; M. Alvarado 1-3; K. Brutus 4-12; D. Anderson 0-1; E. Andujar 1-4); Rebounds: IONA 32 (M. Glover 7), MAN 30 (G. Beamon 8); Assists: IONA 21 (S. Machado 9), MAN 17 (E. Andujar 6); Total Fouls -- IONA 15, MAN 23; Fouled Out: IONA-None; MAN-K. Brutus.