By Dylan Manfre
Rider finally experienced the parity of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). It has been desperate for that feeling for so long. It achieved that with a home win over a Saint Peter’s team in the top half of the MAAC, but not before a loss on the road to Iona.
A poor shooting performance
If there was ever a must-win game for the Broncs, this was it. No match-up with bigger conference tournament implications than the Feb. 24 game against Iona.
Both teams entered the game 6-10 in the MAAC standings and Iona held the eight seed by way of its 23-point win over Rider earlier this year.
The Broncs lost the possibility of moving up via the tiebreaker, losing to the Gaels 65-58, keeping Rider in the ninth seed. Head Coach Lynn Milligan did not talk about standings with the team but assumed her players are privy to the fickleness of the MAAC.
“We want to focus on what we can do and have control over,” Milligan said. “At this point of the year, there’s only three games left so I’m sure that they are aware of where we are in the standings.”
Rider began the game shooting 1 of 10 from the field; highly reminiscent of its first meeting with the Gaels when the Broncs could not find a bucket. Ending the first quarter in New Rochelle, New York, shooting 25% was a minor improvement from the last time Rider played Iona, but it sure did not feel like one as the Broncs only scored nine points.
Senior guard Lenaejha Evans made the first comeback attempt on her own, scoring Rider’s first seven points to cut the deficit to four.
Rider was lucky that Iona guard Juana Camilion did not hit her shots early as she finished the first half 2-for-10 from the field. The Gaels as a whole struggled in the second quarter and did not score for over eight minutes. Gaels guard Oliva Velandenos was hitting her shots, however, scoring 10 of Iona’s 23 first-half points.
The supporting cast for the Broncs seemed nonexistent. Junior guard Jessika Schiffer had a bucket, sophomore guard Makayla Firebaugh had none. Neither did junior forward Anna Ekerstedt, senior guard Amanda Mobley or junior center Victoria Toomey.
Firebaugh helped cut Iona’s lead to one after the Gaels went up 10 early in the third quarter. Iona was unfazed. Especially when it has guards like Vezaldenos and Camilion and a key contributor in Ketsia Athias who had six points and eight boards midway through the third quarter. They responded with a 10-0 run and guard Shyan Mwai had three treys in the period.
Rider diversified its scoring output as the game progressed. Sophomore forward Raphaela Toussaint led the way with a double-double scoring 14 points and 12 rebounds. Schiffer eventually got involved more in the second half, ending the game with 11.
In the fourth quarter, Evans was given a technical foul for taunting as she flexed her arms at Mwai when Rider was down seven with around six minutes left. Milligan said she did not see the play. Evans believed it should not have been called.
“I feel like we should just be able to play the game,” Evans said. “Basketball comes with emotion. I think it was a weak call.”
A huge win
Rider got its taste of the MAAC’s parity with a 57-50 victory over Saint Peter’s in the final home game of the season.
Schiffer’s late-game heroics saw her team hold strong to the lead it gained at the start of the second half. She hit a 3-pointer on the first possession of the third quarter giving Rider a 27-25 lead and Saint Peter’s never came back.
The Broncs got consistent scoring from its guards and defensive stops recording 11 blocks in the game.
The Broncs were only up three with 33 seconds left in the game. Firebaugh hit two key free throws putting the Broncs up 55-50, and creating a two-possession game. Saint Peter’s kept Rider in check.
The time remaining and score indicated a tense final few seconds but not to Milligan. It was anything but that for the Broncs.
“Earlier in the season that would absolutely been tension for us but [it] didn’t feel that at all today,” Milligan said. “I really felt like we were locked in … I didn’t feel like there was any panic or tension today and I feel like that’s a big growth step for us.”
In other games this season such as the one-point loss to Niagara, Rider has gotten flustered and caved under the pressure of an opponent’s comeback. This one felt different.
“There was that confidence [to] not letting [the lead] go,” sophomore guard Makayla Firebaugh said.
The Broncs first lead came on the opening possession of the third quarter from a Schiffer bucket that sparked a mighty 9-0 run and 83% shooting from the field through the first 4:15.
Saint Peter’s Head Coach Marc Mitchell called a timeout after the Broncs strong start to the second half that featured a defensive blog from Firebaugh. Saint Peter’s never came back in the third quarter but did pull to within two after Peacocks guard Rachel Kuhl hit 2 of 3 free throws.
Schiffer knocked down another 3-pointer with 5:51 left that sent Alumni Gym into a frenzy as Rider went up 48-39. She smiled when asked about it. She knew it lit a fire under the team to keep the lead and never look back.
“It was perfect timing with [Makayla] running on the other side. Everyone was going toward her and that opened up my shot,” Schiffer said.
Rider has Fairfield and Quinnipiac left on its schedule and with Quinnipiac being the team the Broncs opened MAAC play with, they are hoping for a positive bookend to a subpar conference slate.
Firebaugh is confident going into the matchups citing the growth the team has made since they last played Quinnipiac.
“A better team,” Firebaugh said on what Fairfield and Quinnipiac will see. “I think we have a better chance because we’ve grown a lot. I don’t know about them but I think we’ve grown more.”