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MAAC Championship: Manhattan Slows Down Iona to Return to NCAA Tournament

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Ashton Pankey and Manhattan found a way to slow down Iona and cool their hot offense. It was enough to send the Jaspers back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Before Manhattan and Iona tipped off for the MAAC Championship, Jaspers coach Steve Masiello compared the rivalry to Louisville and Kentucky, a matchup he played in while a member of the Wildcats.

Masiello said that it felt the same.

It was hard to tell any difference Monday night as Manhattan took out the regular season MAAC champ Iona, 79-69 to take the tournament championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

If you doubt the intensity was the same, all you had to do was look to a moment late in the first half when Manhattan held a 10-point lead, and Iona was doing everything possible to get back into the game.

Gaels star A.J. English made a move to the basket and dished away the ball, but tangled with RaShawn Stores along the baseline. The two tumbled to the ground and on the video replay, it was clear that English made a move with his elbow as he attempted to extract himself.

It was a moment that showed how much these kids lose themselves in this matchup.

English snapped for that split second, and immediately knew it as he looked despondent on the sidelines as the referees tried to make sense of what happened, something none of them really saw live.

The Iona star managed to stay in the game, despite a flagrant and a technical foul, and Iona needed him.

But the Gaels just didn't have enough against the Jaspers. This is the danger in playing with such a short bench. Over three days, Iona had a tough battle against Siena, and then had to run it out against Monmouth. Facing a team that could play them face up in defense was too much for the Gaels.

It became apparent in the second half as Iona tried to come back against Manhattan. The shots just wouldn't fall consistently enough to get over the hump and in front of the Jaspers.

Masiello had his team ready for this third matchup. The Jaspers had one of the top three defenses in the MAAC, and one that could actually push the shorter Gaels. They had the personnel to keep Iona off the offensive glass, led by Ashton Pankey and Emmy Andujar, who each had seven defensive boards, and finished with double digits overall off the glass.

This Manhattan team lost both games during the regular season against Iona, but those losses were by three and four points, so they never should have been counted out to take this title.
They had the shot Monday night to do it.

Pankey finished with 21 points, while Andujar added 18. The rest of the team helped chip in from 3-point range, where Manhattan shot an otherworldly 40.9 percent.

Iona couldn't do the same, going just 5-for-22 from long range. Isaiah Williams, who was unstoppable against Monmouth in the semifinals, made just 1 of 7 from three in the championship. English went 2-for-8 and David Laury was 0-for-3.

No, this night belonged to Manhattan, which channeled the intensity of its coach in the win. With the game still close in the middle of the second half, Pankey went to the bench after making two free throws. He got a very close-up pep talk from Masiello, who seemed as if he could suit it up and bring another level of excitement on the floor for the Jaspers.

Pankey certainly delivered on the energy transfer though with his stellar night that also featured three assists and two blocks.

The Jaspers became the third team this year to secure a back-to-back appearance in the NCAA Tournament. As a 13-seed last year, they stared down Louisville and almost pulled a bracket-busting upset much like Mercer and North Dakota State last year. This team may lack the same overall offensive and defensive ability. They may not have been tested this season as they were last year.

They don't have George Beamon or Rhamel Brown or Michael Alvarado any longer

But they do have another ticket to the dance, and as these starters learned last season, many of whom came off the bench, anything can happen in March.

After all, these guys were not the favorites to advance from the MAAC. They have already bucked the odds. What's one more upset?