By Cameron Fitzpatrick
It was an emotional night for the men’s basketball team as it seized a decisive 68-52 home win over Fairfield Jan. 31.
The Broncs hit the court for the first time since the devastating passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and seven others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26.
A tribute was held for the nine victims of the crash before the game, which included a 24.2-second moment of silence. The team also came out of warmups wearing purple shirts with Kobe Bryant’s iconic jersey Nos. 8 and 24 with the words “Mamba for Life!” on the back.
“This was the least thing we could do to celebrate his life,” Head Coach Kevin Baggett said. “I think it’s important for our guys to know that tomorrow is not promised for any of us. I respect anyone who can dedicate themselves as much as he did for basketball or anything in life.”
The game itself started with the Broncs developing a strong scoring presence under the rim. The first quarter saw Rider score 18 points in the paint and another eight added at the free-throw line.
Both teams battled back and forth for the lead throughout the half. A 12-2 run from the Stags from 10:42 to 5:31 gave them an early 20-15 lead.
Three-point shooting was a struggle for the entirety of the first half as Rider missed all of its first five attempts.
The Broncs’ seven turnovers left a mark, as well as the managing of personal fouls, leading to players like redshirt senior guard Kimar Williams (three fouls) and senior guard Stevie Jordan (two fouls) to sit on the bench.
Both teams shot 37.5% from the field as Fairfield went into halftime with a 29-26 advantage.
“We were taking too many quick shots, and we weren’t making them,” Baggett said. “Therefore we needed to adjust and move the ball side-to-side to get the defense moving a little bit more before we tried to force a shot.”
The second half saw a shooting resurgence from the Broncs. Jordan hit the team’s first three right out of the gate and the entire team got into the groove.
After Fairfield returned with a three-pointer of its own, a ferocious dunk by redshirt junior forward Dimencio Vaughn brought Alumni Gym on its feet.
That dunk sparked a 15-0 run for the Broncs from 18:37 to 12:03 left in regulation. During the run, the team shot 6-for-6 from the field with a three-pointer and two free throws.
In the end, that scoring run proved to be the difference for the Broncs and helped them pull away.
With a few more dagger shots from Vaughn and Jordan, the Broncs finished off Fairfield, 68-52.
“As a team, we’ve just been locking in better,” Williams said. “I just try to play my role and do what I need to contribute to win.”
Vaughn scored a team-high 15 points and 7 rebounds. Jordan added 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
The presence off the bench was clear tonight for the Broncs. The bench was able to rack in 27 points to ease pressure off of the starters as they were on the sideline.
Graduate student guard Willy Nuñez was a force for the Broncs coming off the bench, pouring in 10 points and six rebounds.
“I feel like we played with more poise and played more as a team,” Nuñez said about the team’s second-half run. “We took the defensive end a lot more seriously than the first half, and it goes to show.”
The Broncs are now on a three-game winning streak since losing in Buffalo, New York, on Jan. 19 to Canisius.
“I feel like every season has its ups and downs and it’s a part of the process,” Nuñez said. “We came back and started focusing on defense more and it’s been showing on the court lately.”
Rider will head to West Long Branch, New Jersey, on Feb. 2 for the first of its two matchups against Monmouth this season. The game will tipoff at 1 p.m. on ESPN+.