Ashton Pankey: Manhattan’s Hercules, mother’s helper

Pankey sizes up his opponent in Manhattan's loss to Florida State. Courtesy photo / Perrone Ford PTFPhoto
Pankey sizes up his opponent in Manhattan’s loss to Florida State. Courtesy photo / Perrone Ford PTFPhoto

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 [26] 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.

**

Ashton Pankey cuts down the net at the 2015 MAAC championship. OBW Photo / Ari Kramer
Ashton Pankey cuts down the net at the 2015 MAAC championship. OBW Photo / Ari Kramer

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.

Manhattan basketball’s Samson Akilo and Samson Usilo and their Nigerian bond and strife

Few Americans can imagine what it’s like to walk a single mile in Samson Akilo’s sizeable shoes, let alone understand the backbreaking load of fear, anguish and expectations he shouldered on every step of his nearly 5,300-mile odyssey.

But when he sits towards the end of the bench on Tuesday night in the NCAA Tournament First Round, Manhattan basketball’s 6-foot-8-inch freshman forward needs to only turn his head to the left to find someone who knows exactly what it is like to walk, step-for-step, along the same, winding, and arduous journey from Lagos, Nigeria to Manhattan College, that Akilo has trudged along for the past five years.

“It means everything to me, to have someone with me who knows exactly what I’m going through,” says Akilo of his teammate, countryman, best friend and “brother” Samson Usilo. “We’re the same — we come from the same city, the same culture, the same struggles. Having someone to help me out and be by my side is amazing.”

“Almost no Americans can really understand what it’s like, to be so far away from your family, to worry about them, to not be there to help if they need you, but to know they need you to be that far away,” echoes Usilo. “Samson knows and that helps me keep going.”

The parallels in the paths trod by Usilo and Akilo are staggering. Both were born in the same city in Nigeria. Both were the fifth child in their families — Akilo the youngest in his family and Usilo the fifth of six. Both grew up in meager means, and both lost their fathers far too young.

And both found salvation in basketball; a path to not to just simply survive — no small task in Nigeria, where the average life expectancy remains just 52 — but break down the door that stands between so many that grew up in similar circumstances and a better life.

And now, both are looking back across the Atlantic, hoping to use the game to help lift their families up with them to a better life.

“I am here because of them,” says Usilo of his family. “Everything I am doing is to try to help them have a better life. That’s why I get up every day, to try to make their life better.”

“Whether I can bring [my family] over here, or whether I go back to Nigeria, no matter what, I am going to be doing whatever can to help my family the most,” echoes Akilo.

The long journey

Samson Akilo. Photo credit: Carlisle Stockton / Manhattan Athletics

Present day Nigeria was carved out of the cradle of West Africa by European colonialism, and came under the British Empire in the late 1800s. The history of the people — more than 500 distinct ethnicities — that make up present day Nigeria goes back virtually to the beginning of civilization, serving as the site of numerous civilizations that rose and fell over many millennia.

Through its history, Nigeria has been a country of stark contrasts: serving first as a hub of the trans-Atlantic African Slave trade, and then as the base of the British anti-Slave movement. After achieving peaceful independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, the country almost immediately turned around and plunged into several years of civil war, followed by decades of military dictatorships and juntas.

“I don’t think many American’s really know what it is like to not know if you are going to be able to find food that week to stay alive, and that’s something many people in Nigeria face,” says Akilo.

And nowhere has Nigeria’s contrasts been more stark than Usilo and Akilo’s home city, Lagos.

The most populous city (between 17.5 and 21 million residents) in Africa’s most populous country, Lagos has been simultaneously boom and bust for virtually its entire existence. A port city sitting on a lagoon just off the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is Nigeria’s economic focal point, and is home to most of the country’s big business and financial institutions and industrial production. But in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers that stretch towards the burning African sun, commercial banks, oil refineries and bustling nightlife, sit slums, ghettos, a booming drug trade and organized crime underbelly, and unimaginable poverty.

“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had each other, and that was enough,” says Usilo of his family.

“We were poor,” says Akilo, before quickly correcting, “we weren’t poor — we had a roof over our heads and we had food, but we didn’t have much more.”

It was a life filled with danger, danger that remains for the families that Akilo and Usilo left behind.

“You definitely worry a lot about them, especially not being there,” says Usilo.

The Islamist terrorist movement Boko Haram has made (at least a few) international headlines by butchering entire towns and abducting men, women and children across northern Nigeria — including the horrific massacre of upwards of 2,000 people in a January attack on several villages. And while the group has, thus far, remained in northeast Nigeria — the complete other side of the country from Lagos — the threat to Usilo and Akilo’s family hovers over their heads, and weighs heavy on their hearts, every day.

“You definitely worry about it, because you don’t know when or where they might come from, and they haven’t been caught or captured,” says Akilo.

“I try to not worry about it,” says Usilo, before admitting, “yes, it is very scary.”

But even without the threat of terrorists, life in Nigeria is fraught with disease and danger. Barely more than half of Nigeria’s roughly 174 million residents have potable drinking water or sanitary facilities. It remains the lone country in Africa to have yet to fully eradicate polio, and has a staggering infant mortality rate of more than 97 deaths per 1,000 births.

“Growing up with not a lot, it makes you appreciate life, family, friends, a lot more,” says Usilo.

A lifeline

Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

Despite the difficult living conditions (or perhaps because of them), athletics have become inseparable from Nigerian society.

“Playing a sport, or being athletic, is part of life,” says Akilo.

“I think it gives people kind of something they can concentrate on and forget about the bad things,” says Usilo.

Soccer remains king in the former British colony — akin to a religion — and both Akilo and Usilo dabbled in it as youth, but both quickly gravitated to basketball, which has also propelled a fair share of their countrymen on to significant success, none more so than NBA Hall of Fame selection Hakeem Olajuwon.

And for both Usilo, who would blossom into a ferociously athletic 6’4” wing, and Akilo, a developing forward, basketball would provide an opportunity to a new life. But for both, it would mean leaving their families behind.

“It was a very hard decision,” says Akilo of deciding to accept an offer to play basketball at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, “but my family wanted what was best for me.”

“My family pushed me to go do it,” says Usilo, who first attended a high school in North Carolina, before transferring to Nazareth.

Inseparable brothers

Despite growing up in the same city and traveling in the same basketball circles, Usilo and Akilo had only met once in Nigeria, briefly at a basketball camp, and didn’t get to know each other until they became teammates at Nazareth. Usilo arrived first and Akilo came a year later.

“Samson had been there for a while before me, so he really looked out for me and helped me adjust to everything,” says Akilo.

“It was really great to have Samson there, because having him around helped me feel less lonely, to miss home a little less,” says Usilo.

Usilo was the unquestioned star — a high-major level athlete who would drill pull-up 3-pointers on the fast break and throw down reverse dunks in traffic — but Akilo began to carve out a niche of his own, throwing ‘bows and crashing the boards in the low post. Usilo received dozens of Division I scholarship offers, but when Manhattan extended an offer to Akilo, who had also been offered by Long Island, it sealed the deal for both.

“I really liked the school and the coaches a lot, but the fact that Samson would be there with me definitely helped,” says Usilo.

A rough landing at Manhattan

Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

For both Usilo and Akilo, freshman year of college has been a challenge. While their time away from home has left both much more well-prepared for the independence that comes with college, life for their families in Nigeria been has rougher than at any previous point in their lives. Boko Haram’s attacks, coupled with record unemployment rates and a massive drop in the price of crude for an oil-dependent country, and impending elections already growing contentious, has left tensions high across the country.

“It’s definitely hard for them back home, and that makes it hard for me,” says Akilo.

On top of strife at home, the duo has experienced adversity for the first time on the court, their former safe haven and the eye of the storms that had swirled around much of their lives. Usilo suffered a season-ending torn quad before playing a single minute, and Akilo has stood on the outside looking in at the rotation.

“It has been a challenge,” says Usilo, “being hurt, not being able to play has been very, very hard — very frustrating.”

But both have found solace and support from one another.

“I can talk to Samson about anything, and we talk a lot and help each other a lot,” says Akilo.

“It would be a lot, a lot harder without him,” adds Usilo.

And in the aftermath of Manhattan’s 79-69 upset of top-seed Iona in the MAAC championship game, Akilo and Usilo found each other amidst the celebration to share an embrace as they punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

Looking back across the Atlantic and ahead to the future

Despite their freshman year struggles, both Akilo and Usilo say they are more committed now than ever before to making the most out of their time and earning their degrees at Manhattan so that they can help their respective families.

“When you face something hard, you realize how much you really want something, and I don’t just want — I need to be successful here,” says Usilo.

“I want to give my family a much better life, and for that I need to do great things here,” adds Akilo.

And according to both, whatever their future holds and wherever it may be, it will include the other.

“Samson and I are definitely friends for life, no matter what,” says Usilo.

“We’re family,” Akilo says. “Family is forever.”

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

Steve Masiello, RaShawn Stores, Manhattan win second straight MAAC title

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.”

Manhattan advances to third straight MAAC final

ALBANY, N.Y. – Just 40 minutes of basketball separate Manhattan from its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Yet as Steve Masiello spoke about his team’s third consecutive bid to the MAAC championship, one thing irked him.

“I’m not happy about the opponent,” he said.

That opponent is Iona, the same team the Jaspers defeated in last year’s title game and the same team they fell to in 2012-13. The Gaels beat Manhattan in both regular-season meetings by an average of 3.5 points.

In the early semifinal Sunday evening at Times Union Center, Iona knocked down a MAAC tournament record 19 three-pointers (on 35 attempts) and throttled Monmouth, 95-77.

“They’re, offensively, just a nightmare to deal with,” Masiello said.

Manhattan can be a different type of bad dream for opponents. The Jaspers held Saint Peter’s to 0.77 points per possession and forced 19 turnovers in their 65-48 semifinal win.

“I thought we had the ability to make it ugly and win, which is what you have to be able to do in any type of tournament setting because there are going to be nights you don’t shoot the ball great,” Masiello said.

This Manhattan team has a different look than the squad that cut down the nets last year. George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown — the top three scorers last season — graduated in the spring.

“I think that’s the thing I’m really proud of,” Masiello said. “Obviously we have great turnover. We all know what Mike, George, Rhamel meant to this program. But for me, for these guys, there’s a major pride factor.”

Masiello highlighted his senior class of Emmy Andujar, RaShawn Stores and Donovan Kates.

“They know how to win,” Masiello said. “That’s what they’re about.”

Stores, who had nine points and three steals against St. Peter’s, was on the court in the waning seconds of last year’s NCAA ticket-puncher.

“We’ve been in this game the last two years, so we just want to get back and have fun,” Stores said. “Tomorrow is about business, but they’re our biggest rival so we know what’s on the line, an NCAA tournament berth.”

Jermaine Lawrence breaks out for Manhattan

Jermaine Lawrence beats Connor McClennaghan off the dribble for a two-handed slam Monday night at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh
Jermaine Lawrence beats Connor McClennaghan off the dribble for a two-handed slam Monday night at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y – Steve Masiello looked to his left moments after Manhattan beat Marist, 67-54, Monday night, and asked Jermaine Lawrence a question.

“You haven’t been too happy with me the last couple of weeks, have you?” he asked.

Lawrence flashed a smile, shook his head and answered bluntly: “No.”

Masiello has demanded a lot from his 6-foot-10 sophomore forward. In recent weeks, he has instructed Lawrence to hold himself accountable — a tall order for a former top-30 recruit who had been told all his life just how talented he was. Masiello said Lawrence’s growth in that regard was the key factor behind a 19-point, six-rebound performance at the McCann Center.

“I think the light has now gone off,” Masiello said. “I think two weeks ago, three weeks ago, you’d say something to him and he’d say, ‘I believe you, but this happened.’ Now he’s saying, ‘I got you, I’m going to do it,’ no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Lawrence looked confident, unlike the tentative offensive player he had been for much of the season. He sank a pair of jumpers, soared for an alley-oop and threw a shot fake to beat his man off the dribble for a dunk. By halftime, he had passed his previous career-high of 11 points by a field goal.

“It was pretty good,” Lawrence said. “I just let the game come to me, didn’t want to force anything, just move without the ball and pick my spots.”

Masiello had predicted Lawrence would need time to acclimate to Manhattan’s system, and a foot injury early in the season protracted that process. The Jaspers struggled to a 2-7 record, as Emmy Andujar and Shane Richards were the only two offensive threats. Then they won three of four, and Ashton Pankey broke out for 18 points in a Jan. 7 win over Saint Peter’s, prompting Masiello to say: “The key for our offense to continue to grow is AP and then Jermaine Lawrence. Now we’re starting to get AP going, and next will be Jermaine.”

Jermaine Lawrence blocks T.J. Curry's layup in the second half of Manhattan's win at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh
Jermaine Lawrence blocks T.J. Curry’s layup in the second half of Manhattan’s win at Marist. OBW Photo / Kendall Loh

With the trio of Andujar, Pankey and Richards producing consistently, Manhattan (15-12, 12-6) has won 13 of its last 18 games. They have carried the Jaspers, but Manhattan has lacked a reliable fourth scorer who can boost the offense when one or more of the big three is limited. Monday night, Andujar, Pankey and Richards combined for four points in the first half — Richards did not return to the game, and Masiello said his status is day-to-day with a knee injury — yet the Jaspers trailed Marist by a slim 31-27 margin because of Lawrence’s 13 points and five rebounds.

“I don’t think we would have won this game [Monday] without Jermaine, for real,” said Andujar, who scored all 13 of his points after the break.

“We get [Lawrence] going with AP, Emmy and Shane, we’ve got a chance,” Masiello said. “So hopefully we can continue it and just keep playing good team basketball.”

While Lawrence’s 19 points set a career-high, his six rebounds were a season-high. Remember, Masiello pulled Lawrence from the Jaspers’ exhibition win over LIU Post because the forward was not attacking the boards.

“It’s a difference maker,” Masiello said. “Ironically, the difference on the glass tonight was six.”

Perhaps the moment that exemplified Lawrence’s confidence the most came in the first half, when he leaked baseline and signaled for an alley-oop. Rashawn Stores didn’t throw a pass towards the rim, but Lawrence jumped anyway, like he needed the ball.

“He’s finally getting that lion in him, and you’re seeing it because he can’t take it out on me,” Masiello said. “He knows that wouldn’t be good, so he’s taking it out on the other team. That’s what I like to see.”

Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC.

A.J. English rises to occasion for Iona against Manhattan

RIVERDALE, N.Y. — As the seconds ticked off the clock, A.J. English had his sights set on two things. Neither was the rim.

Iona was tied at 65 with rival Manhattan Friday night, and 45 seconds left became 40 and then 35. The fluorescent lights lining Draddy Gym’s ceiling bounced off the hardwood floor as resounding chants of “Defense!” emanated from the capacity crowd of 2,520.

English had not scored in more than 11 minutes. He scanned the floor for Schadrac Casimir, a freshman guard who passed his initiation into the rivalry with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Casimir wasn’t free. Manhattan switches every pick late in games, and the 6-foot-9 David Laury screened for English to create a mismatch. English couldn’t find an angle to feed Laury in the post against Manhattan point guard Rashawn Stores.

English had been in other high-leverage situations this year.

With just a few ticks left, he calmly sank two free throws to beat Niagara, 80-79, on Jan. 16. Two weeks later, he had the presence of mind to hit Kelvin Amayo for an overtime-forcing layup in a win over Saint Peter’s rather than shoot a triple-teamed 3-pointer.

But this was different.

This was a chance to stake Iona’s maroon and gold flag at center court and declare a new territory 9.3 miles away from home in New Rochelle. This was at Manhattan, the rival that upset Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship.

“Coach [Tim Cluess] just looked at me and told me to go,” said English, who ranks 17th nationally with 19.7 points per game.

So with the 6-foot-10 Ashton Pankey guarding him off the switch and 18 NBA scouts taking notes, the 6-foot-4 English let one fly from well beyond the 3-point line with 30 seconds left. He dropped his arms to his sides, and the ball splashed through the net as he strutted down court with points 20, 21 and 22 for the night.

The Jaspers still had life, but Iona prevailed with a 70-67 victory, its 47th win in 86 tries against Manhattan.

“He made a terrific shot,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said. “It’s kind of one of those plays where when you look at it statistically that shot shouldn’t beat you, and it did tonight. It’s a switch with a [6-foot-10] guy switching out. Almost 70 percent of the time on pick-and-rolls with a 1-5 switch, the 1 is going to shoot a challenged jump shot, which he shot. And he made it. Give him credit.”

The win was Iona’s 20th this year — Cluess became the first head coach to hit that mark five times at Iona — and solidified the Gaels (20-6, 13-2) as a virtual lock for the MAAC regular season title. Rider (17-9, 11-4), which dropped both bouts with Iona, trails in second place by two games with five left.

“It’s great,” Cluess said when asked about getting win No. 20 by beating Manhattan.

It was well-earned.

The Jaspers were resilient and battled back from two double-digit deficits. Iona just always had an answer, and it was frequently Casimir.

Nine seconds after Emmy Andujar capped a 14-3 Manhattan run and evened the score at 26 with two foul shots, Casimir sank a 3-pointer. He drove on Iona’s next possession and finished a nifty scoop. Then he buried a trey with a minute remaining in the half to send Iona into the break with a 37-30 lead.

In the second half, Shane Richards’ 3-pointer with 9:16 left gave Manhattan a 52-51 lead, its first of the game. Draddy erupted.

While Manhattan fans were still high-fiving, Casimir snatched back the lead with another 3-pointer. Iona did not trail again.

“They had hit a huge shot, and they’d either get back in the game or take the lead,” Cluess said, “and here comes [Casimir] to answer it. As the crowd was starting to erupt, he quieted it again. I think those were huge, that we had answers, because if we didn’t have the answer right then, the game might have turned in the other direction.”

That direction would have been a statement win for the Jaspers (12-12, 9-6), whose record conceals a hot streak of 10 wins in 14 games carried into Friday night’s clash. But Manhattan still made a statement of sorts.

“We just played Iona to the wire,” Andujar said. “It just shows that we’re right there. It just comes down to one or two plays.”

English made the one that mattered most.

Steve Masiello: Emmy Andujar not getting “respect” he deserves

Steve Masiello sat in his Draddy Gym office, clad in his Manhattan track suit and brimming with optimism borne by a new season’s imminent start. It was late October, and the Jaspers coach was speaking about how he would replace three players — George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown — who had carried his program last March to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004.

One obvious solution seemed to be Emmy Andujar, a statsheet-stuffing senior point forward. Andujar averaged 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 23.3 minutes per game as a junior, and had shown flashes — like his 28-point outburst in Manhattan’s 80-77 win over Iona last February — that he could be Manhattan’s new alpha dog.

Masiello hedged, saying Andujar could be one of many potential alpha dogs along with Ashton Pankey, Shane Richards and Rich Williams.

“I think this team has a lot of guys that could really step up and really have what I call ‘alpha roles’, but I don’t think you’ll see the same guy have alpha roles every night, which I like because how do you prepare for it?” Masiello said. “Well, if you prepare for Emmy, then Shane or Rich are going to go. If you prepare for Rich, then AP and Shane are going to go. That’s a nice luxury as a coach. I don’t want it to be this guy’s team because it’s easy to prepare for that.”

Fast-forward four months, and those three other players have had their alpha moments and games, especially lately. Andujar, however, has asserted his value as Manhattan’s do-it-all playmaker. He’s leading the Jaspers in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (7.2 rpg), assists (3.4 apg) and steals (2.0 spg) while shooting 52.1 percent from the field. Those marks rank fifth, sixth, fifth, second and third, respectively, in the MAAC. He’s second in the conference with 6.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and no MAAC player his height (6-foot-6) or smaller has an offensive rebounding rate higher than his 10.4 percent.

Manhattan (12-11, 9-5) has won 10 of its last 14, and Andujar has averaged 18.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.2 steals while shooting 55.6 percent in 13 games played during that stretch.

“I think his value is more than it’s ever been,” Masiello said. “It even now has surpassed what I envisioned for him because he’s doing everything at such a high clip, from his scoring to assists to field-goal percentage, offensive rebounds, defending. I think he’s having a terrific senior year.”

Yet Andujar hasn’t won a MAAC Player of the Week award, and that frustrates Masiello, who also questioned the credibility of a media outlet that named Andujar a fourth-teamer in the preseason and the conference coaches who voted him to the second team.

Disclaimer: Andujar has been a mainstay on OBW’s MAAC Fab Five, but he has not once been our Player of the Week.

“From where I’m sitting, I never thought he got the respect he deserved,” Masiello said. “I think he’s one of the most disrespected kids there is, and I do feel that way. I don’t think he got the credit he deserved coming into this year on a defending championship team as the leading guy back. He didn’t get nearly the credit he deserved, and I still don’t think he’s getting it. He’s one of the few guys that hasn’t gotten Player of the Week, and his team is in the top three in the conference. He’s the only guy that’s had that. There’s something there where people don’t think he is where he is.”

Andujar’s 25.3 percent turnover rate is high. His 26.7 percent 3-point clip and 68.5 percent free-throw percentage are low. Masiello would obviously prefer those numbers to be better, but he is pleased with Andujar’s overall production.

“He has met everything I’ve asked and done everything,” Masiello said. “If I asked him to go outside and stand in a blizzard, he would do it. If I asked him to go get 20 rebounds, he would do it. He’s done everything I’ve asked. Other people might say, ‘oh, I want to see him do this more.’ Well, I’m not asking him to do that, so it’s unfair.”

Don’t count Iona head coach Tim Cluess as an Andujar doubter. In Cluess’ first meeting with Masiello’s Jaspers, Andujar’s banked 3-pointer at the buzzer capped Manhattan’s comeback from a 17-point deficit for a win in New Rochelle. He was just a freshman then, and he has saved some of his best performances for Iona.

“He gets [respect] from us,” Cluess said. “Emmy’s a really good player. He’s a top-level player in this league, and if anyone doesn’t give him respect shame on them.”

When Manhattan and Iona clash tonight on ESPNU, Andujar will face his stiffest competition for MAAC Player of the Year: David Laury and A.J. English, who rank first and third on the league scoring chart. They have led the Gaels (19-6, 12-2) back to the top of the MAAC standings while stuffing the statsheet.

“Everything we do starts with them,” Cluess said. “They’re the leaders of the team. They’re the best players on the team. They’re the ones who set the tone in the game on both ends of the court and in the locker room and preparation.”

Andujar has played his way into the conversation with them for Player of the Year, and you can bet Masiello will campaign for his star to win it.

“The first thing I look for when you talk about Player of the Years and you talk about first teamers is if you’re that good, does your team have a chance to win it? So that’s the first thing you’ve got to talk about,” Masiello said. “I think we’re right there… He’s done his job of having us in contention for it. Then obviously his numbers and his play have backed that up. I think he’s done what he’s supposed to do as a senior, as a guy who’s kind of taken the reins over of being the next guy up from George, Mike and Rhamel.”

For live updates from tonight’s game, follow Ari Kramer on Twitter.

Manhattan vs. Iona: 10 best games of last 10 years

Manhattan and Iona are separated by 9.1 miles, a 17-minute drive from one gym to the other. They have one of the best rivalries in college basketball.

As the Gaels take a 46-39 all-time advantage into this year’s first meeting with the Jaspers, let’s take a look at the 10 best games Iona and Manhattan have played over the last 10 years.

Games were evaluated based on stakes, finishes and how good both teams were.

10. Thriller at the Mecca

Date: Jan. 30, 2008

Score: Iona 62, Manhattan 60

Location: Madison Square Garden

The Gaels did basically everything they could do to blow a 13-point lead in the last six minutes, going ice cold from the field. Their only two points in that stretch came on a De’Shaune Griffin jumper with 1:53 left. Their three possessions after that, leading to the final horn: turnover, turnover, missed front end. Manhattan had two chances to tie the game on the final possession, but Rashad Green’s last-second jumper missed.

9. Give the ball to Rico

Date: Jan. 22, 2010

Score: Iona 56, Manhattan 53

Location: Draddy Gym

Iona was on its way up, in the last year of the Kevin Willard era, and Manhattan was en route to yet another sub-.500 year under Barry Rohrssen. Nonetheless, this one came down to the wire, with Manhattan losing by way of a classic Rohrssen coaching move: give the ball to Rico.

Rico, of course, was Alabama/Miami Dade CC transfer Rico Pickett, an enigmatic, ball-stopping talent. As he did in so many late-game scenarios that one season with Pickett, Rohrssen handed the ball to his star and basically said, “Do something.” It rarely worked.

This time, Jermel Jenkins stripped Pickett with just a few seconds left, and Kyle Smyth sank a pair of free throws for the final margin.

8. The timeout

Date: Jan. 15, 2005

Score: Iona 69, Manhattan 67

Location: Draddy Gym

Peter Mulligan did so much right during his time at Manhattan, but he made a Chris Webber-like gaffe in this one, calling for timeout with 36 seconds left and the Jaspers having none available.

Steve Burtt converted the two free throws to break a tie at 67, and the Jaspers missed three 3-pointers in the last 20 seconds.

Iona overcame a 13-point deficit in the last 8:21.

7. The Jenkins winner

Date: Feb. 4, 2005

Score: Iona 55, Manhattan 53

Location: Mulcahy Center

Greg Jenkins was the last-second hero, as Iona swept its 2005 series with Manhattan. After Jeff Xavier tied the game at 53 with 35 seconds left, the Gaels had an opportunity to hold for the last shot. Steve Burtt missed a layup, but Jenkins corralled it and laid it in with 0.4 seconds left.

The winner was a shining moment in Jenkins’ nice senior year for the Gaels.

This stands as Iona’s only buzzer-beating win over Manhattan in the last 10 years.

6. Emmy saves the day, Pt. 3

Date: Feb. 28, 2014

Score: Manhattan 80, Iona 77 OT

Location: Draddy Gym

The Gaels had locked up the MAAC regular season title a night earlier, with Quinnipiac’s loss to Siena, but they showed no signs of complacency. Less than eight minutes after tip, Iona had a 20-13 lead and looked like it would shoot the Jaspers down to the No. 4 seed for the MAAC tournament.

Then Manhattan began to pick apart Iona’s defense, scoring 32 points in the last 12 minutes to take a 45-35 lead into the break. But this wouldn’t have been a Manhattan-Iona game if the Gaels rolled over. Tre Bowman had a chance to break a tie on a layup with nine seconds left in regulation, but Emmy Andujar swatted it, corralled it and then missed his tough potential winner at the horn.

Andujar scored five of Manhattan’s nine points in the extra period, as the Jaspers held on for the win.

5. Emmy saves the day, Pt. 2

Date: Feb. 15, 2013

Score: Manhattan 74, Iona 73 2OT

Location: Draddy Gym

Manhattan had hit its groove two weeks earlier, finally adjusting to life without George Beamon — who redshirted the season with an ankle injury — and came in hoping to avenge a recent loss to the Gaels. It nearly didn’t happen.

The Jaspers held Iona scoreless for the last 3:22 of regulation, and Andujar forced overtime with a layup with 42 seconds left.

At the end of the second overtime, Mike Alvarado missed a free throw that would have tied the game at 73 with 11 seconds left. Rhamel Brown gathered the offensive board, his 17th rebound of the night, and the Jaspers worked the ball to Andujar, who drove left and finished the winner with four seconds remaining.

4. Emmy saves the day, Pt. 1

Date: Jan. 12, 2012

Score: Manhattan 75, Iona 72

Location: Hynes Athletics Center

Steve Masiello’s head coaching debut in the rivalry included a 17-point comeback and a wild, buzzer-beating shot.

The Jaspers trailed an Iona team that would eventually earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament 65-48 with 7:58 remaining. Then Manhattan caught fire, and six minutes later, an Alvarado layup tied the game at 69.

Brown, of all people, buried two free throws with eight seconds left to give Manhattan a 72-70 lead, but Momo Jones raced up court and answered. His falling jumper in the lane tied the game with a shade more than three seconds on the clock.

The Jaspers got the ball to halfcourt and called timeout with 1.3 seconds left, allowing Masiello to design a play from the left side that would get Brown the ball near the rim. With Taaj Ridley leaping and waving his arms frantically, Alvarado, the inbounder, couldn’t get the ball to Brown. George Beamon, the next option, couldn’t free himself as he curled around the left wing. Kidani Brutus ran around aimlessly near halfcourt to clear room in the middle. That left Andujar as the only option.

The then-freshman caught Alvarado’s inbounds pass on the right wing with his back to the basket. In one motion, he turned, rose and banked in the winner as the horn sounded.

3. An all-time regular-season finale

Date: Feb. 26, 2006

Score: Manhattan 78, Iona 74

Location: Draddy Gym

For a while, this game stood as the greatest bout between Manhattan and Iona, a winner-take-all clash for the regular-season title and the all-important double-bye in the MAAC tournament.

It included a brawl. It featured two comebacks. After the Jaspers completed the latter one and sealed the win, an Iona student somehow managed to rip off a piece of the Draddy bleachers, chucking it in disgust as Manhattan fans rushed the floor.

Steve Burtt blew kisses to the crowd after his transition 3-pointer with 6:05 left gave Iona a 67-60 lead, but Jason Wingate led Manhattan on an 18-7 run to close the game. Manhattan’s lefty point guard started the spurt with a 3-pointer, gave the Jaspers a 72-70 lead with a layup and sank all four of his free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the victory.

Iona got the last laugh, though, as Keekee Clark and Saint Peter’s upset the Jaspers in the semis before falling to the Gaels in the championship.

2. A first for everything

Date: March 11, 2013

Score: Iona 60, Manhattan 57

Location: MassMutual Center (Springfield, Mass.)

Iona put an end to Manhattan’s timely hot streak — the Jaspers had won eight of 10 entering the first MAAC championship meeting between the two rivals — but it wasn’t easy, as Masiello’s bunch kept the pace and score in their favor.

The Gaels hadn’t been held to an output lower than 62 all year. The eighth-fastest-paced team in the nation at 71.1 possessions per game, they had played 65 or fewer possessions just three times. Manhattan’s high-pressure defense made them uncomfortable, resulting in a 60-possession game, the slowest 40 minutes Iona had played all year.

And the Jaspers were also doing just enough offensively. With 14:52 remaining, they led 35-30, thanks to a Shane Richards 3-pointer.

But then Iona found an offensive rhythm. The Gaels went on a 17-2 run over the next six-plus minutes, and Manhattan wouldn’t cut the gap to four until Brown hit two free throws with 1:24 left. Tre Bowman scored 14 points in the last 14 minutes, and David Laury’s emphatic slam with six seconds left sealed Iona’s first championship since 2006.

This one ranks below the 2014 championship because the slim final margin was aided by an Iona technical, after players prematurely left the bench in celebration when another Richards 3-pointer fell through with one-tenth of a second remaining.

1. Manhattan’s senior sendoff

Date: March 10, 2014

Score: Manhattan 71, Iona 68

Location: MassMutual Center

With a talented senior class, the Jaspers hadn’t had as good of a chance of making the NCAA tournament since 2006, when they lost to Saint Peter’s in the MAAC semifinals. Of course Iona stood in the way. Again.

And, again, Iona used a run to take control after Manhattan scored its 35th point. This time, however, the Jaspers would squelch the spurt earlier, ending the 11-0 spurt and pulling within 38-37 on a Brown layup with 15:35 remaining.

Manhattan opened a 64-54 lead with 6:19 left, but Iona came back and cut the gap to two with 26 seconds left and again nine seconds later. After Donovan Kates went 1-for-2 at the stripe to give Manhattan a 71-68 lead, Iona had one more chance. The Jaspers took away Sean Armand and A.J. English, leaving Laury wide open from the right wing. His 3-point bid hit the backboard and then the rim, but it bounced off and sent Manhattan dancing for the first time since 2004.

For live updates from tonight’s game, follow Ari Kramer on Twitter.

Samson Usilo, Samson Akilo and their Nigerian bond and strife

Samson Akilo. Photo credit: Carlisle Stockton / Manhattan Athletics Few Americans can imagine what it’s like to walk a single mile in Samson Akilo’s sizeable shoes, let alone understand the backbreaking load of fear, anguish and expectations he shouldered on every step of his nearly 5,300-mile odyssey.

But sitting towards the end of the bench in Draddy Gymnasium, the 6-foot-8-inch freshman forward for Manhattan needs to only turn his head to the left to find someone who knows exactly what it is like to walk, step-for-step, along the same, winding, and arduous journey from Lagos, Nigeria to Manhattan College, that Akilo has trudged along for the past five years.

“It means everything to me, to have someone with me who knows exactly what I’m going through,” says Akilo of his teammate, countryman, best friend and “brother” Samson Usilo. “We’re the same — we come from the same city, the same culture, the same struggles. Having someone to help me out and be by my side is amazing.”

“Almost no Americans can really understand what it’s like, to be so far away from your family, to worry about them, to not be there to help if they need you, but to know they need you to be that far away,” echoes Usilo. “Samson knows and that helps me keep going.”

The parallels in the paths trod by Usilo and Akilo are staggering. Both were born in the same city in Nigeria. Both were the fifth child in their families — Akilo the youngest in his family and Usilo the fifth of six. Both grew up in meager means, and both lost their fathers far too young.

And both found salvation in basketball; a path to not to just simply survive — no small task in Nigeria, where the average life expectancy remains just 52 — but break down the door that stands between so many that grew up in similar circumstances and a better life.

And now, both are looking back across the Atlantic, hoping to use the game to help lift their families up with them to a better life.

“I am here because of them,” says Usilo of his family. “Everything I am doing is to try to help them have a better life. That’s why I get up every day, to try to make their life better.”

“Whether I can bring [my family] over here, or whether I go back to Nigeria, no matter what, I am going to be doing whatever can to help my family the most,” echoes Akilo.

The long journey

Present day Nigeria was carved out of the cradle of West Africa by European colonialism, and came under the British Empire in the late 1800s. The history of the people — more than 500 distinct ethnicities — that make up present day Nigeria goes back virtually to the beginning of civilization, serving as the site of numerous civilizations that rose and fell over many millennia.

Through its history, Nigeria has been a country of stark contrasts: serving first as a hub of the trans-Atlantic African Slave trade, and then as the base of the British anti-Slave movement. After achieving peaceful independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, the country almost immediately turned around and plunged into several years of civil war, followed by decades of military dictatorships and juntas.

“I don’t think many American’s really know what it is like to not know if you are going to be able to find food that week to stay alive, and that’s something many people in Nigeria face,” says Akilo.

And nowhere has Nigeria’s contrasts been more stark than Usilo and Akilo’s home city, Lagos.

The most populous city (between 17.5 and 21 million residents) in Africa’s most populous country, Lagos has been simultaneously boom and bust for virtually its entire existence. A port city sitting on a lagoon just off the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is Nigeria’s economic focal point, and is home to most of the country’s big business and financial institutions and industrial production. But in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers that stretch towards the burning African sun, commercial banks, oil refineries and bustling nightlife, sit slums, ghettos, a booming drug trade and organized crime underbelly, and unimaginable poverty.

“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had each other, and that was enough,” says Usilo of his family.

“We were poor,” says Akilo, before quickly correcting, “we weren’t poor — we had a roof over our heads and we had food, but we didn’t have much more.”

It was a life filled with danger, danger that remains for the families that Akilo and Usilo left behind.

“You definitely worry a lot about them, especially not being there,” says Usilo.

The Islamist terrorist movement Boko Haram has made (at least a few) international headlines by butchering entire towns and abducting men, women and children across northern Nigeria — including the horrific massacre of upwards of 2,000 people in a January attack on several villages. And while the group has, thus far, remained in northeast Nigeria — the complete other side of the country from Lagos — the threat to Usilo and Akilo’s family hovers over their heads, and weighs heavy on their hearts, every day.

“You definitely worry about it, because you don’t know when or where they might come from, and they haven’t been caught or captured,” says Akilo.

“I try to not worry about it,” says Usilo, before admitting, “yes, it is very scary.”

But even without the threat of terrorists, life in Nigeria is fraught with disease and danger. Barely more than half of Nigeria’s roughly 174 million residents have potable drinking water or sanitary facilities. It remains the lone country in Africa to have yet to fully eradicate polio, and has a staggering infant mortality rate of more than 97 deaths per 1,000 births.

“Growing up with not a lot, it makes you appreciate life, family, friends, a lot more,” says Usilo.

A lifeline

Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Usilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

Despite the difficult living conditions (or perhaps because of them), athletics have become inseparable from Nigerian society.

“Playing a sport, or being athletic, is part of life,” says Akilo.

“I think it gives people kind of something they can concentrate on and forget about the bad things,” says Usilo.

Soccer remains king in the former British colony — akin to a religion — and both Akilo and Usilo dabbled in it as youth, but both quickly gravitated to basketball, which has also propelled a fair share of their countrymen on to significant success, none more so than NBA Hall of Fame selection Hakeem Olajuwon.

And for both Usilo, who would blossom into a ferociously athletic 6’4” wing, and Akilo, a developing forward, basketball would provide an opportunity to a new life. But for both, it would mean leaving their families behind.

“It was a very hard decision,” says Akilo of deciding to accept an offer to play basketball at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, “but my family wanted what was best for me.”

“My family pushed me to go do it,” says Usilo, who first attended a high school in North Carolina, before transferring to Nazareth.

Inseparable brothers

Despite growing up in the same city and traveling in the same basketball circles, Usilo and Akilo had only met once in Nigeria, briefly at a basketball camp, and didn’t get to know each other until they became teammates at Nazareth. Usilo arrived first and Akilo came a year later.

“Samson had been there for a while before me, so he really looked out for me and helped me adjust to everything,” says Akilo.

“It was really great to have Samson there, because having him around helped me feel less lonely, to miss home a little less,” says Usilo.

Usilo was the unquestioned star — a high-major level athlete who would drill pull-up 3-pointers on the fast break and throw down reverse dunks in traffic — but Akilo began to carve out a niche of his own, throwing ‘bows and crashing the boards in the low post. Usilo received dozens of Division I scholarship offers, but when Manhattan extended an offer to Akilo, who had also been offered by Long Island, it sealed the deal for both.

“I really liked the school and the coaches a lot, but the fact that Samson would be there with me definitely helped,” says Usilo.

A rough landing at Manhattan

Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics
Samson Akilo. Photo Credit: Manhattan Athletics

For both Usilo and Akilo, freshman year of college has been a challenge. While their time away from home has left both much more well-prepared for the independence that comes with college, life for their families in Nigeria been has rougher than at any previous point in their lives. Boko Haram’s attacks, coupled with record unemployment rates and a massive drop in the price of crude for an oil-dependent country, and impending elections already growing contentious, has left tensions high across the country.

“It’s definitely hard for them back home, and that makes it hard for me,” says Akilo.

On top of strife at home, the duo has experienced adversity for the first time on the court, their former safe haven and the eye of the storms that had swirled around much of their lives. Usilo suffered a season-ending torn quad before playing a single minute, and Akilo has stood on the outside looking in at the rotation.

“It has been a challenge,” says Usilo, “being hurt, not being able to play has been very, very hard — very frustrating.”

But both have found solace and support from one another.

“I can talk to Samson about anything, and we talk a lot and help each other a lot,” says Akilo.

“It would be a lot, a lot harder without him,” adds Usilo.

Looking back across the Atlantic and ahead to the future

Despite their freshman year struggles, both Akilo and Usilo say they are more committed now than ever before to making the most out of their time and earning their degrees at Manhattan so that they can help their respective families.

“When you face something hard, you realize how much you really want something, and I don’t just want — I need to be successful here,” says Usilo.

“I want to give my family a much better life, and for that I need to do great things here,” adds Akilo.

And according to both, whatever their future holds and wherever it may be, it will include the other.

“Samson and I are definitely friends for life, no matter what,” says Usilo.

“We’re family,” Akilo says. “Family is forever.”

A look inside Manhattan’s defense and Rhamel Brown’s void

In the final minutes of the 2014 MAAC championship, David Laury drove to the hoop hoping to pull Iona within one possession of Manhattan. Rhamel Brown denied him, softly swatting his attempt to Rashawn Stores.

Laury was just Brown’s latest and last MAAC victim. He was not the first. Not by a long shot.

Brown was the MAAC’s Anthony Davis of interior defense, only he was four inches shorter and lacked the power of the unibrow. Opponents could get to the hoop against Manhattan, but Brown frequently sent them away empty handed. His 15.7 percent block rate (kenpom, subscription required) ranked second in Division I last year, and his presence under the hoop altered an even greater percentage of shots.

Oh, does Manhattan miss him.

The Jaspers’ defense is more inefficient than it has been under Steve Masiello, and Brown’s void cannot be understated. Manhattan’s adjusted efficiency of 103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks 213th in the country. In last season’s run to the MAAC title and NCAA tournament, the Jaspers allowed 96.5 points per 100, good for the 35th-best mark. They were even stingier in 2012-13, when they ranked 27th with 92.3 points allowed per 100. Even in Masiello’s first year, Manhattan’s opponents got 98.4 points per 100.

So — cue your inner Jerry Seinfeld voice — what’s the deal with Manhattan’s defense?

The Jaspers are forcing turnovers at a higher rate (24.9 percent) than ever before, but their defense on 2-point shots has fallen to a pedestrian level. Opponents are converting 49.4 percent of shots inside the arc, leaving Manhattan at No. 232 nationally. The Jaspers held teams to 44 percent (No. 32) on such attempts last year.

Hoop-math.com digs deeper and tells us opponents are shooting 57 percent on shots at the rim this year, up from 48.3 percent last year, when Manhattan blocked nearly one of every five at-rim attempts. The Jaspers have swatted just 9.1 percent of shots at the rim this year.

Based on data from hoop-math and the MAAC, Manhattan’s opponents have converted 251 field goals at the rim this year. That total would have been 213 had the Jaspers sustained their 48.3 percent field goal defense at the hoop. That’s a difference of 76 points. It would have been 44 if the Jaspers allowed opponents to convert 52.1 percent of such attempts, as they did in 2012-13.

Ashton Pankey, Brown’s replacement as Manhattan’s starting center, has done his best work on the offensive end, but he’s also blocking shots at a respectable 5.1 percent clip, which ranks 210th nationally. The Jaspers are thin up front, though. He’s the only strong body under the hoop, and he lacks Brown’s natural shot-blocking ability.

Last year, Masiello frequently had Pankey and Brown on the floor at the same time. With Brown in foul trouble, Pankey could hold down the fort at the rim. This year, Masiello has no such luxury.

Manhattan’s decline on the glass has also undoubtedly boosted the uptick in opponents’ 2-point percentage. The Jaspers’ offensive rebounding percentage allowed has risen from 33.3 percent in 2013-14 to 35.3 percent.

George Beamon was actually more of a stalwart than Brown on the defensive glass, grabbing 17.3 percent of misses to Brown’s 14.5.

Masiello said in the preseason he was “most concerned about the blocked shots and the rebounding.” His reasoning is evident now more than ever.

The Jaspers still harass opposing offenses, and, as they showed against Saint Peter’s, can eliminate primary and secondary offensive options. On the other end, the offense has improved since its early bouts with inefficiency, the Quinnipiac game notwithstanding.

But without Brown protecting the rim — and Beamon, an all-league caliber defender — they just aren’t the defensive juggernaut they were last year.