By Brandon Scalea
The men’s basketball team clinched the eighth seed of the MAAC Tournament in Albany after splitting its final two regular season games.
On Feb. 26, the in-state rivalry continued between Rider and Monmouth when the Broncs took their annual trip to West Long Branch. In another nationally televised game, a sold-out crowd at the Multipurpose Activity Center saw Monmouth (25-6, 17-3 MAAC) secure the MAAC regular-season crown in a dominant performance, defeating Rider 79-58.
The Hawks’ junior guard Justin Robinson, one of the front-runners for MAAC Player of the Year, and freshman guard Micah Seaborn left Rider (12-19, 8-12 MAAC) baffled for the second time this season. The duo was also key in the Hawks’ come-from-behind victory at Alumni Gym on Feb. 12, when they used a 17-2 run in the last three minutes to win by one.
In this game, however, a Monmouth comeback wasn’t necessary.
The Broncs came out of the gate shooting just 2 for 16 from the field, as the Hawks opened a 9-0 lead they would never relinquish. Although Monmouth led by as much as 18 in the first half, Rider would not go away early. It used a 12-5 run at the end of the half to cut the deficit to just 12 with the Hawks leading 44-32.
In the Feb. 12 meeting, Monmouth headed to the halftime locker room enjoying a nine-point lead. That lead turned out to be short-lived, as Rider came out in the second half of that game and hit the first seven three-point shots it took. Apparently, Monmouth did not forget this.
This time, the Hawks opened the half on another 9-0 run and the Broncs never recovered. The deficit would be as high as 23 as the Broncs struggled to get into a rhythm offensively.
Junior center Kahlil Thomas had another notable performance despite the loss, compiling 16 points and coming just two rebounds shy of his 12th double-double of the season. He also shot 54 percent from the field.
“We definitely like to pass the ball inside,” Thomas said. “And when my teammates get me the ball, it feels good to score.”
For Monmouth, Robinson and Seaborn had 10 points and 19 points, respectively.
In the final regular season game of its 2015-16 campaign, Rider honored its seniors in a big way, rebounding from the tough loss at Monmouth by beating Manhattan at home 60-57.
The record does not show it this season, but the Jaspers (12-17, 9-11 MAAC) are still considered by many to be one of the elite teams in the conference — back-to-back MAAC titles will do that.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett feels as though this win will give the team confidence moving forward into the postseason.
“It feels good to get this and it feels good to send our seniors out with a win,” he said. “We haven’t been playing well the last couple of games and we talked about it.”
In the victory, it was the same story as usual for the Broncs as Thomas led the way in the paint. He was a perfect 7 for 7 from the field and grabbed five rebounds.
Baggett commented on the importance of his big man’s play.
“He does a great job of finding his teammates and getting the ball out to the perimeter,” he said. “Those guys were trying to double-team Kahlil so I just wanted him to have those options.”
Junior guard Jimmie Taylor also had a big night, but in a different way. Though he only hit one field goal in the contest, it was enough to make him the 35th player in program history to eclipse 1,000 career points.
After leading 27-22 at the half, the Broncs led by as much as 13 midway through the second.
Trailing 49-37 with five minutes left, Manhattan went on a 10-0 run to cut the lead to two.
To the Rider fans in attendance, it was beginning to look like shades of the Feb. 12 Monmouth game, as Manhattan’s senior guard Rashawn Stores came alive during that span. He finished the game with 12 points.
But unlike that fateful night earlier in the month, Rider played a complete 40-minute basketball game and managed to keep it together even as the Jaspers chipped away at the lead.
“We’ve been here before. There was no way these guys were going to let this one slip away,” Baggett said. “Everyone was able to keep their composure.”
It was the third time in the last four tries that the Broncs were able to defeat the reigning MAAC Champions.
On Feb. 29, Thomas and graduate guard Teddy Okereafor were both named third team All-MAAC for their success this year.
Rider will open the conference tournament on March 4 in a first-round matchup with ninth-seeded Quinnipiac, a team it split the regular season with. If they advance, the Broncs would then meet top-seeded Monmouth one more time in the quarterfinal round on March 5.
Okereafor feels as though the team’s resiliency could come into play up in Albany.
“We don’t quit and we’re not that kind of team,” he said. “As long as there is a game, we’re going to play it the way it’s meant to be played.”