By Ryan Connelly
The men’s basketball team is officially off to its best start in over two decades, and it’s starting to gain national attention.
Rider (19-7, 12-2 MAAC) has been on a tear, notching eight straight wins and 12 of its first 14 MAAC games — already just one short of the program record for wins in an 18-game conference schedule.
Going into the Feb. 10 game on ESPN3, Marist was last in the conference with an overall record of 5-21 and just three MAAC wins. A loss for first-place Rider would not have looked good for the team that has NCAA Tournament aspirations.
The Red Foxes came out firing in the first half, shooting 14-for-30 from the field and 10-for-20 from three. On the other hand, it was a rough first half for the Broncs, only scoring 27 points while allowing 39 on defense.
It seemed as if nothing was dropping for Rider: shooting 11-for-32 from the field, 2-for-8 from three, and 3-for-7 from the free-throw line. Redshirt freshman forward Dimencio Vaughn, freshman guard Jordan Allen and junior guard Stevie Jordan combined for only 13 points.
Even coming out of the locker room into the second half wasn’t pretty for the Broncs. Rider’s shots were not dropping, Marist continued to dominate on the glass and kept scoring. With just 10:30 minutes to go in the game, Rider went down, 65-44.
At that point, something fired up the Broncs to rally back, slowly but surely, chipping away at that huge lead. It wasn’t until two minutes left in the game that Rider finally gained the advantage. Able to hold the line, the resilient Broncs finished the game, 89-79. The difference between the Broncs in the last 10 minutes of the game versus the rest looked like two totally different teams.
The Broncs stopped messing around and dropped 62 points in the second half to overcome the deficit, while holding Marist to only 40 points. In that half, Rider’s accuracy was on point, shooting 21-for-45 from the field and 17-for-20 from the free throw line. Their three-ball was still struggling, only going 3-for-12. Vaughn finished the game with a double-double, recording 12 rebounds total and 28 points.
Freshman forward Frederick Scott almost recorded one of his own, scoring 12 points and nine rebounds. Jordan was another key part to this comeback, scoring 19 total.
“A good team finds a way to win,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “We have a number of guys, that’s why we’re a good team, we have a number of guys who can contribute.”
Rider also defeated Manhattan, 77-73, on Feb. 8.
For the majority of the first half, the Jaspers had the lead by as much as seven points.
Going into the second half, it wasn’t until around 16 minutes left where the Broncs had their second advantage. However, they held that lead for the rest of the game, with the exception of the Jaspers going up one-point with three minutes left to go. Rider still managed to come away with yet another victory. Once again, Vaughn led the game in points with 23 and with eight rebounds. Allen was also in double digits with 20, going 3-for-7 from three-point range. Scott recorded a double-double scoring 12 points and 11 rebounds while only having 28 minutes played.
Bagget said, “We [have] got to play smarter, I don’t think we played nearly as smart as we should have or could have.”
Two Broncs also won weekly awards. Vaughn won MAAC Player of the Week and Allen earned MAAC Rookie of the Week. These awards were earned mostly through the spectacular comeback against Marist, arguably Rider’s highlight win of the season thus far.
Jordan said, “I think we got a group of guys that when the game is on the line, we step up.”
With March Madness quickly approaching and with Rider being the current top seed in the MAAC, they are naturally being projected to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994.
As of Feb. 12, Rider’s Ratings Power Index (RPI) was 67 on NCAA.com. RPI takes into account home versus road wins, strength of schedule and non-conference wins, among other factors. It is key when Selection Sunday rolls around. Rider’s best-ever RPI at a season’s end was 107 in 2011.
ESPN Bracketology, put together by well-known analyst Joe Lunardi, currently has Rider’s RPI at 70, and is projecting that they will be a No. 15 seed playing No. 2 seed Cincinnati. The next best MAAC team is Iona ranked at 113, after that is Canisius at 124.
According to ESPN, Rider’s RPI is notably higher than South Carolina, Oregon, Oklahoma State and Penn State.
The Broncs’ next game is Feb. 15 at home against Siena. Tip-off is 7 p.m.