LEWISTON – It was fitting that a good defensive play in the final seconds sealed Manhattan College’s 70-69 victory over Niagara Thursday night.
Manhattan executed its defensive game plan to the letter the entire game in taking away Niagara’s excellent three-point shooting.
The Purple Eagles rank second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in both three-pointers per game (9.2) and three-point percentage (40.2).
But Manhattan’s aggressive zone defense chased Niagara off the three-point line, limiting the Purple Eagles to just 4 of 12 three-pointers.
The game wasn’t decided until Manhattan forward Zane Waterman stepped in front of Matt Scott in the lane and drew a charge with 4.5 seconds left. Scott made the layup after contact, and the crowd of 1,198 at the Gallagher Center roared its objection. But the call was a good one.
“When I got the ball, I saw the lane, there was nobody there,” Scott said. “I did see the help defender. So when I got there, I tried my best to go around him. The ref didn’t see that, so he made his call. You just have to live with that.”
“I feel like every game toward the end of the game, Matt Scott is kind of driving to the basket real hard,” Waterman said. “So I’ve been focusing on that. It happened in the last game a couple times. I just stepped up and took a charge.”
Manhattan improved to 8-14 and 3-8 in the MAAC. Niagara (7-15, 4-7) missed a chance at its first three-game win streak in two years.
Pressure defense has been the trademark of the Jaspers in the six-year tenure of coach Steve Masiello, a Rick Pitino disciple. Manhattan led the MAAC in steals and turnovers forced in both 2014 and 2015, when it won back-to-back MAAC championships.
Manhattan led the MAAC last year in limiting threes and is No. 1 again this year, allowing 16 attempts a game.
“Our defense is predicated on taking away teams’ first options,” Masiello said. “Tonight our length got us out and got us to extend a little bit. . . . We kept them on our chests for a lot of the night, and that was a big reason we took away the attempts. If you give them multiple attempts they’re going to make them. They shoot it too well.”
The Jaspers played what looked mostly like a 3-2 zone, with pressure on the perimeter ball-handler. Niagara was able to work the soft middle of the zone some, getting shots near the foul line.
“A challenged 15-footer at the collegiate level, 15-to-17 feet, is 22 percent,” Masiello said. “At the pro level it’s 31 percent. We charted those statistics over four years. So we understand where we want teams to shoot the ball from. Some of those shots we call fool’s gold. We want to dictate what we give you, and we wanted to take away the line tonight.”
Niagara outrebounded Manhattan, 41-29. The Purple Eagles outscored Manhattan at the foul line, 25-12. They held Manhattan to 42.4 percent shooting.
“I thought we did some good things,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “We had to do two more good things to win the game.”
“We didn’t get as many threes up as we normally do,” Casey said. “They did a good job of that. But I thought we had a few open ones that we needed to knock down. Sometimes they go, sometimes they don’t.”
If Casey had one complaint it was his defense needed to be a little better early. Manhattan, not a great shooting team, held a 42-36 halftime lead and was up, 62-50, with 9:30 to play.
That’s when Niagara started getting stops. The Purple Eagles went on a 19-6 run to take a 69-68 lead with 28 seconds to play. Waterman then hit two free throws before drawing the decisive charge.
Scott led Niagara with 20 points. Forward Marvin Prochet and guard Kevin Larkin each added 12. Manhattan got 18 from forward Calvin Crawford.
Manhattan will try to put the perimeter clamps on Canisius when it visits the Koessler Center at 2 p.m. Saturday. Niagara plays host to Rider at 3 p.m. Saturday.