By Rob Rose
For the second time this season, the men’s basketball team eclipsed 90 points and a double-digit victory in a 97-81 rout of Niagara on Feb. 22 as Rider extended its win streak to three games. Rider also defeated Niagara, 104-84, on Jan. 13.
“Guys are starting to really come along now,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “[The team is] just getting better. We’re getting back to doing the things we were doing early on.
While it wasn’t official until the final buzzer sounded, the Broncs won the game in the first two minutes. Rider jumped out to a 9-0 lead and rattled Niagara, which never responded.
Midway through the first half, the Broncs held a comfortable 27-14 advantage, but over the next four minutes, they unleashed an offensive explosion that put the game out of reach.
A 16-5 run by Rider increased its lead to 43-19, fueled by its playmaker, junior guard Stevie Jordan.
Jordan led the Broncs with 21 points, three 3-pointers and six assists with no turnovers.
After he led the MAAC in assists per game the last two seasons, Jordan’s assist numbers are down from nearly six per game last season, to four this year.
But he has nearly tied his career high in points per game with 12.4 and increased his three-point percentage from 27 to 37 percent.
Rider, ranked eighth among Division I teams in steals per game at 9.3, used its trademark defense to create easy baskets.
With 16 steals and 22 points off turnovers, the Broncs applied suffocating pressure on the Purple Eagles throughout the game.
With such a large first-half lead, the Broncs were able to play all 11 scholarship players and all 11 recorded a point as freshman forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson beat the halftime buzzer with a layup to send Rider into the locker room up, 58-27.
“Going down the stretch it’s going to be hard to guard us if we can continue to do the things we’re doing now,” said Baggett.
Three other Broncs recorded double-digit scoring performances on the night as junior center Tyere Marshall, graduate student guard Anthony Durham and sophomore forward Dimencio Vaughn posted 14, 13 and 11 points, respectively.
With 7:11 left in the contest, sophomore guard Jordan Allen connected on a 3-pointer to give the Broncs their largest lead at 44.
During the game’s final minutes, Rider fans watched nervously as the once insurmountable lead dwindled down as Niagara released a barrage of 3-pointers.
Baggett was able to empty his bench as walk-on freshman guards Noah Buono and Ryan O’Leary played for the first time since the Jan. 13 victory over Niagara. When the final buzzer sounded, Rider won, 97-81.
After being picked as the unanimous preseason favorite to win the MAAC, Rider has battled an up-and-down season which has seen a five-game winning streak, as well as a five-game losing streak.
“That brought us more together,” said Jordan. “Everybody had to communicate their goals and the main goal was everybody wanting to win. So, when everybody wants to win we have to come together.”
With two difficult games remaining in the regular season, the Broncs’ focus is on the men in the locker room and nobody else.
“It’s about us now,” said Baggett. “This is the time of the year that it’s gotta be about us and not our opponents.”
Rider will play three-time defending conference champions Iona on March 1 at 7 p.m. before a road contest on March 3 at 2 p.m against Marist, who led Rider by 16 at one point in the Broncs’ 86-85 victory on Jan. 27. Both games can be streamed on ESPN+.
As of Feb. 26, Iona held a half-game lead on Quinnipiac, Rider, Siena and Canisius for first place in the MAAC.
If the standings held in their current form, Rider would be the No. 3 seed and play the winner of the matchup between the No. 6 and No. 11 seeds in the quarterfinals on March 9 after a first-round bye.
With the teams so close together in the standings, every game left on the schedule has an impact on the standings as Rider could finish as high as first in the conference or as low as sixth.
“We’re not really paying attention to it right now, we’re just going out and playing our hardest,” said Jordan. “We know the MAAC tournament, that’s the real test. So, we’re just getting ready for that.”
Follow Rob Rose on Twitter.