ALBANY, N.Y. – There they stood, atop a podium beneath a net-less rim. Steve Masiello and RaShawn Stores, back against back.
Third-seeded Manhattan had just defeated No. 1 Iona, 79-69, in the MAAC championship at Times Union Center Monday night, and the coach and point guard who have had each others’ backs for four years basked as teammates chanted “back to back! Back to back!”
Masiello buried a smile in Emmy Andujar’s chest, while an elated Stores flashed a wide grin. Manhattan had punched its second straight bid to the NCAA tournament.
“[It was] one of the best feelings,” said Stores, a senior. “Journey started four years ago when he brought me in. I thank him every day.”
Masiello believed in Stores when no other coaches offered him a roster spot. He also heeded Stores’ advice Sunday night when discussing a gameplan for Iona.
“He literally came up with the scheme of how he wanted to play the game,” Masiello said. “He told me he wanted to fan out, not trap David [Laury], play single coverage, and let’s see how they play it.”
The Jaspers executed that plan and led for 33 minutes and 39 seconds. Playing Laury one-on-one enabled them to keep closer tabs on Iona’s lethal shooters who had set a MAAC tournament record with 19 made 3-pointers against Monmouth in Sunday’s semifinal. The Gaels were 5-for-22 from deep and 23-for-59 overall.
“If you take away a team’s top priority and make them to go C and D… it’s always going to be rough,” Stores said. “We just know ball pressure, ball pressure, keep trying to get to their legs. They’re a jump-shooting team. If you don’t have legs, you can’t really shoot the ball too well.”
“[Stores is] going to be a superstar in this coaching business,” Masiello said, “and I’m lucky to have him.”
Stores, Manhattan’s undisputed leader, stressed the importance of unity, reiterating the Jaspers’ 2014 slogan of “T.O.E.” or “Team Over Everything” and this year’s version, “22 Strong,” as he sat next to the championship trophy.
That unity helped Manhattan fight through a rare form of adversity that seeped into the program last spring. Five days after the No. 13 Jaspers gave No. 4 Louisville a scare in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64, Masiello accepted the head coaching position at South Florida. The deal fell through when a background check revealed Masiello had not earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, as his resume stated.
After internal deliberation, Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello as head coach on the condition that he complete his degree.
The Jaspers welcomed him back with alacrity.
“It’s been, probably, the hardest year of my life,” Masiello said.
And now he and Manhattan are back on top, heading to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. No MAAC team had advanced to consecutive NCAA tournaments since Siena from 2008-2010.
An emotional Masiello deflected the credit for the program’s return to glory towards his players.
“They handled themselves with class, and the cream rises,” he said. “For me to be where I’m sitting and to be associated with these young men, I’m the lucky one. I’m the luckiest coach in college basketball. It’s about these kids. That’s what we can’t lose sight of. It’s about these kids.”