Steve Masiello speaks of Ashton Pankey with mythical admiration.
“He’s kind of like a unicorn,” Masiello says.
Masiello is the head coach at Manhattan, a mid-major program hailing from the MAAC. So when he says, “You don’t get guys like that,” he means that schools at his level rarely sign chiseled 6-foot-10 forwards, who, at 225 pounds, can both run the floor and dominate the post.
“You look at this young man, and he looks like Hercules, made out of stone,” Masiello says. “He’s so strong.”
If Pankey is Hercules, Iona was his Nemean lion. The redshirt junior, who transferred from Maryland in 2012, slayed the Gaels with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the MAAC championship to lead Manhattan into the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. He was named Most Valuable Player of the conference tournament.
“We’re not where we are today without Ashton Pankey,” Masiello says.
And Pankey would not be here — starring for Manhattan — without his mother.
Ashton Pankey remembers feeling confused. Disappointed, too. Most of all, he was frustrated.
The date was Oct. 24, 2012, and Masiello called his newly acquired forward into his office. “AP,” Masiello said, “[the NCAA] denied your waiver. It looks like you’re going to have to sit this year.”
Why? How could they reach that decision? I’m here for a legitimate reason.
Those were the thoughts cluttering Pankey’s head that day. Persuasion Branch, his ailing mother, had been evicted from her South Bronx home. He had only left Maryland — where he started 17 of 32 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 — to care for her. The NCAA, he thought, would grant his hardship waiver for that reason.
“I can’t do anything without my mom,” Pankey says. “If I would have lost her, I don’t know what I would be doing or where I would be in life.”
Pankey was concerned about his mother’s well-being. He says he immediately knew he would transfer closer to home when he heard about the eviction because his younger sister, Taylor Branch, was away at Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.
His mother needed him, even for simple chores around her new Queens home.
“He was missing team-related stuff to go help his mom,” Masiello says. “We knew it was a real situation.”
The NCAA disagreed.
Masiello braced for a tantrum when he summoned Pankey that October day.
“Nine out of 10 kids pout, hang their heads, feel sorry for themselves,” Masiello says. “He went out in the Green & White [intrasquad] scrimmage that night and had  points in it. I saw the way he handled adversity for the first time, and I was really impressed by it.”
Pankey suppressed his questioning thoughts, the whys and hows behind the NCAA’s conclusion. He so desperately wanted to play immediately, but he could only train with his sights set on the 2013-14 season.
Pankey practiced with the Jaspers throughout the 2012-13 season, though NCAA rules prohibited him, a redshirting transfer, from traveling with the team. He learned from junior center Rhamel Brown and the coaching staff, and he spent as much time as he could with Branch.
Internally, however, he struggled.
“It was a crazy year, and it was really hard for me,” Pankey says.
Pankey is a staunch believer in everything happening for a reason, including the undesired NCAA ruling. He’s just as firm in his conviction that he could have made a tremendous impact on the Jaspers that redshirt year.
So watching from the bench as Iona beat Manhattan, 60-57, in the 2013 MAAC championship was debilitating. That experience made Pankey feel useless — he couldn’t do anything to swing the result in Manhattan’s favor — but it also disrupted his stoic disposition.
Masiello remembers sitting in the team hotel that night, on the verge of tears as he recounted how his Jaspers came so close to reaching their first NCAA Tournament since 2004.
“[Pankey] came up to me, and he had tears in his eyes — and this is a kid that didn’t show emotion at the time,” Masiello says. “He was very stoic, almost to the effect of where you didn’t know if things mattered to him. He said, ‘Coach, I promise you next year we’re going to win this thing, and you have my word on that.’”
Pankey talked the talk, but at first he struggled walking the walk. He was scared of stepping on the toes of George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown, the senior class that had resurrected the program from the ground level. He didn’t want to act like the alpha dog when he wasn’t.
“I just went in and didn’t really know my role with the team,” Pankey says.
The result: a slow start.
Pankey fouled out in each of his first two games, Manhattan wins over La Salle and Columbia. He scored in double-figures — never more than 11 points — in five of the Jaspers’ first 20 games. Then were games at Illinois State and against Monmouth when Pankey scored just two points. Even in his 9-point, 5-rebound, 4-block performance at South Carolina, Pankey shot 2-for-6 from the field and fouled out.
Throughout the struggles, Pankey continued to take the subway out to Queens to help his mother. He battled a leg injury, and adjusted to life coexisting with Brown on the block.
“I don’t think people realized how many things Ashton had to deal with last year,” Masiello said this past October.
Then Pankey exploded for 12 points and eight rebounds in a 64-49 win over Saint Peter’s on Feb. 4, as Manhattan snapped a two-game skid. In the next game, Pankey had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. The Jaspers beat Canisius, 84-73, and lost just once in their nine games leading up to the conference championship.
“I think we really saw who Ashton Pankey was the last 10, 12 games of the year,” Masiello says.
Pankey scored just four points in Manhattan’s 71-68 win over Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship, but two of them came in the Jaspers’ critical 8-0 spurt with about six minutes left. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots.
After David Laury’s last-second heave missed, Pankey found his coach.
“The first thing he did is he grabbed me and he goes, ‘I told you I got you,’” Masiello says.
Pankey’s message was the same not even three weeks later, when Manhattan placed Masiello on leave for falsely stating on his resume that he had graduated from the University of Kentucky. Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello on the condition he complete the necessary coursework to receive his degree, but he was crushed. He was embarrassed that he lost a five-year contract worth about $6 million with South Florida. He was ashamed that a misstep from 14 years earlier nearly cost him his livelihood and the game he loves.
Masiello ordinarily has an unbreakable will, but he was a vulnerable man in those early weeks of spring.
“[Pankey] said, ‘Don’t worry about this coach. A year from now, we’ll be right back where we belong,’” Masiello remembers. “That’s just the type of kid that AP is. The country doesn’t get to see it because he comes off so tough, his demeanor on the court.”
Which brings Pankey’s story to the last two-plus months, when his herculean physique began to consistently overwhelm opponents.
Dating back to Jan. 7 — when he had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a 68-63 win over Saint Peter’s — Pankey averaged 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in 19 games, 14 of them Manhattan wins. That’s easily the best stretch of his career.
“He has been dominating,” Manhattan walk-on Trevor Glassman says.
It’s easy to forget now, but Pankey struggled again early in the season. He had seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in a Nov. 18 overtime loss at UMass. He scored five points and fouled out in 15 minutes in a 64-63 loss at George Mason on Nov. 29. In 2013-14, Pankey’s nine points and five rebounds against Northeastern probably would have provided Manhattan enough of a jolt for a win.
“The biggest thing for Ashton last year was he could have an off day and this program could still win because of Rhamel, Emmy [Andujar], George, Mike, etcetera, etcetera,” Masiello says. “This year I didn’t know if we could be successful if he had an off night.”
So Masiello started from the ground level when he and Pankey broke down film together.
“We simplified things,” Masiello says. “I would say, ‘Tell me what you saw here, tell me what you saw there. What do you like? What don’t you like? Where do you like the ball? Where do you want it on this? Here’s your read on this.’”
In Manhattan’s first 13 games, Pankey produced consecutive double-digit outputs just twice. By the Saint Peter’s game in early January, Pankey had grown comfortable. He understood his role — just how important he was to Manhattan’s success — and he was ready to make his mark.
So the Jaspers entered the ball to Pankey on their first possession. Pankey banged into Quadir Welton, forced him deep under the hoop and threw down a rim-rattling dunk.
“Everybody just went crazy and I established myself and established the tone for the game and not just for the game, for the rest of the season as well,” he says.
The Jaspers will face Hampton Tuesday night in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. It might be the play-in game, but it’s the tournament, nonetheless — right where Pankey promised Masiello the Jaspers would be.
“I still feel like I’m dreaming, man,” Pankey says three days after cutting down the Times Union Center nets.
Pankey says he is closer than ever with his mother, the woman who drew him to Manhattan in the first place. Without her falling ill and getting evicted, Pankey likely would have stayed at Maryland. Had he never medically redshirted his freshman year at Maryland and had the NCAA granted his hardship waiver in 2012-13, he would have exhausted his eligibility last year. Not that he would ever wish misfortune to seep back into his family’s life, but Pankey says everything happens for a reason.
“Look how things turned out: two championships in a row,” Pankey says. “It’s just all crazy. I’m just so happy, words can’t describe.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.