By Carlos Toro
With two conference victories this past week, the Broncs have solidified their status as contenders for the MAAC Championship.
Rider (18-9, 12-4 MAAC) defeated Canisius on Feb. 13 and then Niagara on Feb. 15 in two road games to extend the winning streak to four games.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett says that while the team has been doing well this season, he feels they’re now playing their best basketball of the year.
“It takes time for a new group to gel together,” Baggett said. “It’s been fun watching this team during the maturation process. Now we’re playing together, and the chemistry has been very fun to work with.”
Rider started its New York road trip in Buffalo, facing off against Canisius (13-12, 8-8 MAAC).
Sophomore guard Jimmie Taylor scored the first 6 points for the Broncs, followed by layups from sophomore forward Xavier Lundy and junior guard Teddy Okereafor to give Rider an early 10-4 lead.
The Golden Griffins responded and tied the game up at 14 points a piece, thanks in part to 5 points from their junior center Kevin Bleeker.
Canisius then used 22 first-half points in the paint to take control of the game. They went into halftime winning 36-28.
Despite Rider’s attempts to close the gap early in the second half, Canisius consistently responded, holding its lead.
With 12:47 left, Okereafor hit a 3-pointer to bring Rider back into the game, cutting the Canisius lead to 4 and sparking a Bronc comeback. Shortly after senior center Matt Lopez made one of his free throws and sophomore forward Khalil Alford hit a jumper, Okereafor sank another 3-pointer to give Rider the 44-42 lead.
Canisius still managed to tie the game up thanks to a couple of free throws made by Bleeker with 7:20 left in the game.
Taylor broke the tie for the last time when he made a three-point shot with 5:33 remaining to give Rider a lead it would not relinquish. Despite more comeback efforts from the Golden Griffins, the Broncs won the game 60-59.
Taylor finished with 13 points, and Okereafor added 15 points. Senior center Matt Lopez had 7 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
While Rider’s next opponent, Niagara (4-21, 3-13 MAAC), has had its struggles this season, the first half was a back-and-forth contest that featured five ties throughout the opening period.
The Purple Eagles managed to get a 6-point lead late in the first half, thanks to 4 points from sophomore guard Wesley Myers that was part of an 8-0 Niagara run.
Sophomore forward Khalil Thomas, who finished with 8 points in his second game back from an injury sustained in December, thinks the team didn’t play up to its potential.
“We started off a little slow at first,” Thomas said. “We played around with our opponent for a bit, and we shouldn’t have done that.”
Rider managed to tie the game up just before halftime, but quickly fell back to a 5-point deficit two minutes into the second half. After a layup and an ensuing free throw made by Lopez, Taylor sank two straight 3-point shots and broke the game open, as the Broncs won 69-60.
Taylor led the team with 15 points, while Okereafor added 13 points and five assists. Lopez had 11 points and five rebounds to add for the Broncs.
The Broncs trail Iona by two games for the top spot in the conference standings. Rider has four regular season games remaining, three of them at home. The Broncs face Quinnipiac (14-11, 8-8 MAAC) on Feb. 19 and Niagara again on Feb. 21.
Baggett isn’t looking ahead to the MAAC Tournament just yet. He wants to try and win every game that he can.
“From the start of the year, we set out to win the MAAC and the way you do it is one game at a time,” Baggett said. “Our guys know what’s at stake. We want to give ourselves the best positioning in the league so that we can have a better chance at winning the championship.”