|Monday, March 10
Updated: March 13, 2:05 PM ET
Manhattan grabs NCAA berth and gives warning
TRENTON, N.J. -- Bobby Gonzalez's white shirt was held tight to his body by some very cold water his players had dumped on him.
"I'll probably have pneumonia in two minutes. I'm shaking like a leaf,'' the fourth-year coach said Monday night just minutes after Manhattan beat Fairfield 69-54 in the championship game of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
That meant the Jaspers were in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995, and Gonzalez seemed more than ready for the hectic time leading up to the opening-round game.
"We're a dangerous opponent in the first round,'' he said. "Mark it down. No predictions. Mark it down.''
It's easy to be that confident when you coach the best team in the league and it just won because of the best player in the conference.
Luis Flores had 22 points and 10 rebounds and he made sure Manhattan was never in trouble.
Manhattan (23-6) was the preseason pick to win the MAAC and the Jaspers held first place almost all season. They took advantage of the league's new policy giving the regular-season champion a bye to the semifinals and won two games to win it all.
Flores had 30 points in an 82-81 double-overtime win over Niagara in Sunday's semifinals.
"I told him that he had 30 points but he didn't play good against Niagara,'' Gonzalez said. "He was frustrated by their zone and didn't show poise at certain times. I told him they were going to come at him tonight and try to shut out him out and he couldn't get frazzled and to enjoy being on ESPN and that the whole country could see what a great player he is.''
Flores did his part in the championship game. He was 7-for-12 from the field, 7-for-8 from the free throw line, played all 40 minutes and showed leadership.
Every time the Stags (19-11) got within nine points in the second half, the 6-foot-2 junior either scored or drew the attention of the defense to allow someone else an open look. Fairfield got within nine points five times in the last 10 minutes, but never closer.
When Dave Holmes missed three straight free throws and seemed to give the Stags and their fans at the Sovereign Bank Arena some life, Flores became a coach on the floor.
He talked for about 10 seconds with Jason Wingate before the freshman stepped to the line with 1:15 to play. Wingate made both for a 63-52 lead.
Freshman Kenny Minor was up next for the talk from Flores and it worked again as he made two free throws with 1:03 to play to make it 65-52.
The last four free throws were by Flores and he dribbled out the clock near midcourt, smiling and pointing toward the stands as he and the Jaspers counted down to their fifth NCAA bid.
"We shoot 100 free throws every day in practice in groups of three and Jason and Kenny are my partners,'' Flores said. "In practice I tell them you're going to be in a situation where you're going to have to make a big free throw and that's why you have to be serious in practice. I just reminded them it's just like practice.''
Holmes added 12 points for Manhattan, which was 1-3 in its previous MAAC championship game appearances.
The Jaspers finished with a 40-35 advantage on the boards to become just the second team in 21 league games to outrebound the Stags.
"I told the team before the game if we outrebound them we win,'' Gonzalez said. "We didn't want any doubts about this. I never told them they were the favorites. The public may have thought that but in private we were the underdogs.''
Oscar Garcia had 11 points for Fairfield, which hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1997. Stags coach Tim O'Toole was a player on Fairfield's 1987 NCAA team.
"No matter what we tried to do they countered,'' O'Toole said. "We were off and they played great. Flores really stepped up. There's not much you can say about him. He's had a great year.''
The Jaspers took the lead for good with a 15-0 run that gave them a 20-7 lead with 10:05 left in the first half. Fairfield got within 26-20 on two free throws by Nick Delfico with 3:49 left, but Flores hit a 3-pointer and baseline jumper and Minor scored off a steal as Manhattan scored seven points in 35 seconds to go up 33-20 with 2:53 to play.
After Siena swept through the tournament last season and reached the NCAA tournament with an under-.500 record, the MAAC changed the rules to give the top seed two byes and move it to the semifinals.
"It's a large reward, but they earned it,'' O'Toole said of the double bye. "We were playing a third game in three days and it showed.''
Manhattan swept the MAAC basketball titles as the Lady Jaspers won the women's tournament on Sunday.
The Jaspers' other NCAA appearances came in 1956, 1958, 1993 and 1995.