By Jordan Hall
Rider’s home court dominance was challenged in its past two games. The first test came at the hands of winless Marist (0-6, 0-1 MAAC), the second from a big, long, senior-laden La Salle (6-2) squad.
The Broncs (6-4, 1-0 MAAC) secured a 55-51 victory on Sunday over the Red Foxes to open up their MAAC schedule but then fell to the Explorers, 69-60, after a gritty comeback came up short.
Following the Marist win, Rider entered its matchup with La Salle 26-4 at the Broncs’ Zoo in its last 30 home games, but this didn’t seem to bother the skilled and sized Explorers. La Salle became the second non-conference team in the past three years to enter Alumni Gym and leave as victors.
“It’s never easy to lose at home,” said Head Coach Tommy Dempsey.
The Explorers present matchup problems for a living as all five of their starters stand taller then 6’5”. They also have an NBA prospect in senior guard Rodney Green and possess the fifth-ranked center in the nation’s freshman class, 6’11” Aaric Murray, according to rivals.com.
These advantages showed in the first half, and it looked as if the Broncs were in for a long night. La Salle led 35-20 with two minutes left in the opening frame and went into the break with a 13-point advantage, but Rider remained within striking distance.
The Broncs rode a 20-8 run over a 10-minute span that sent Alumni Gym into a frenzy. The timely spurt brought Rider to a two-point deficit, 60-58, with only three minutes left.
A layup from Green expanded the Explorer lead to four, but Rider countered with two free throws from junior guard Jhamar Youngblood to bring it back to two, 62-60.But that’s as close as they would get.
The Broncs couldn’t convert the game-tying or go ahead basket and La Salle sank clutch free throws to ice the thriller.
Senior point guard Ryan Thompson led Rider in the scoring column with 16 points, bouncing back from one of his worst performances of his collegiate career versus Marist.
Sophomore Novar Gadson provided a huge lift with his second straight double-double, dropping in 14 points and pulling down 12 rebounds.
“We brought the fight to them and didn’t back down against a huge and physical basketball team,” Dempsey said. “I took more positives from the performance than negatives.”
At times, good teams have to find a way to win when they aren’t performing at their best, and that’s what Rider did on Sunday, defeating conference foe Marist.
“If you’re going to be a good team, you have to win some games on days that you struggle,” Dempsey said. “A lot of the MAAC games will be so tight and you have to find ways to win them at the end, so that was a good sign on Sunday.”
Rider looked sharp early on, racing out to a 17-6 lead midway through the first half, but they were never able to extend the advantage and pull away.
The opening spurt was ignited by three-pointers from Youngblood and fellow junior guard Justin Robinson while junior forward Mike Ringgold totaled eight points during the run. The Red Foxes were forced to call a timeout, and it seemed as if the Broncs were going to cruise, but that wasn’t the case.
Rider’s deep and balanced offensive attack never clicked in the first frame as they went 9-32 (28 percent) from the field and 3-14 (21 percent) from beyond the arc.
Poor offense can turn into strong defense, and that’s what happened for the Broncs as they held Marist to five total field goals in the opening half.
Rider stretched its lead to 10 in the opening minutes of the second frame, but the Red Foxes hung around and eventually tied the contest, 37-37, with eight minutes left in regulation.
With the game still tied at the five-minute mark, Rider strung together a run when it mattered most. The Broncs created an 8-0 stretch that consisted of key defensive stops and four points each from Youngblood and Gadson. The run sealed the deal for the Broncs.
“We found a way to win the game and we had to use our defense to do it,” said Dempsey.
Rider returns to action tomorrow at UMBC. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.