By Dylan Manfre
“It’s March and anything can happen and we’ll be ready.”
Well said, Lynn Milligan. Well said, indeed.
The 14-year head coach is right, anything can happen, but the women’s basketball team’s fate — and when it plays its first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament game — is tightly held in the hands of its opponents.
Rider does not control its destiny going into the tournament because it will not have played a game for 21 days.
The rest of the women’s field has a pretty packed schedule with 23 games being played between Feb. 14 and March. 8, when the tournament starts.
Rider (5-13, 6-17) could have four more days added on and have the break become 32 days if it is locked in as the sixth seed. Should the scenario transpire, Rider would be pit against the no. 3 seed on March. 11 — exactly one year since its last MAAC tournament game.
The “hardest thing” for Milligan is preparing for an unknown opponent and making sure the team stays ready in the process.
“If you’re seven, you’re playing on Tuesday and if you’re six you’re playing on Thursday, so it just changes a little bit of your planning,” Milligan said. “The sooner we know, if we’re six or seven, the easier it is to plan what we want to do and how we want to get ready for that game.”
After it split the Feb. 27 and 28 series against Quinnipiac, Niagara jumped Iona for the no. 7 seed. With two games left to play, the Purple Eagles can eclipse Rider for the no. 6 seed if they sweep Siena on March. 4 and 5.
Iona is the no. 8 seed and can jump to sixth if it sweeps Monmouth. Iona swept Rider earlier in the season and owns the tiebreaker.
Milligan has been at Rider for 14 years as a head coach. She knows a thing or two about playing in the tournament so multiple seeding scenarios is no surprise to her.
“It’s been that way since [the] jump,” she said. “It really has.”
The break period is a lengthy one. A preseason 2.0 perhaps. Unlike the initial preseason period, the Broncs do not have to worry so much about how many people they can have in the gym and how long they can practice for at a given time. They just practice.
“It’s weird because it feels like a long break but at the same time we’re still working out, we’re still practicing, we’re still doing everything we normally do,” sophomore center Victoria Toomey said. “I think we definitely had a really good opportunity to get in the weight room. We’ve been doing extra strength and conditioning workouts.”
With no games being played, what else can you do aside from practice, lift and school, of course?
Multiple players said there is an “anxiousness” to get back on the court in Atlantic City for the tournament especially since over 3/4 of the team has little or no experience in a MAAC postseason atmosphere yet.
“We know what we’re working for,” Milligan said. “I think they’re excited to have a chance to play in Atlantic City. We feel good about where we are as a team right now.”
There are games Rider would like to get back though. Game one against Marist is a particular example which stood out to Toomey. Rider lost by one, 47-46, and it was the first time this season Marist had been held to under 50 points.
Freshman forward Raphaela Toussaint has worked on her confidence all season long. With the latest off period, she said that has been the area she wants to improve the most.
“Just playing [and] not letting anything get to my head or just overthinking things,” said Toussaint, who started 15 games this season.
How does she do that?
“Just try to move on to the next play … Coach always says just to let it out and embrace the mindset,” Toussaint said.
Return of the fan
Rider will play in front of actual fans again for the first time since Nov. 25 when it opened the 2020-2021 sesaon against Villanova University.
The league reversed course on its no-fan policy at the MAAC basketball tournament on Feb. 26. This comes four days after New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order declaring venues holding over 5,000 people can host spectators at 10% capacity as of March. 1. No tickets will be sold since only limited persons related to players or coaches will be allowed.
Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, has a capacity of 10,500 persons so 1,050 people could be accommodated under the new ruling.
“I think the kids are excited that their families get to come because the people who are coming to the games are families and friends,” Milligan said. “We have a lot of local kids and a lot of parents that are just really invested in our program. I think it’s going to be a great thing that their family gets to come see us play.”
It is unclear now how many passes each team will receive. Friends and family members attending games will have to be on a “pass list” and have to show identification upon entering, per a Rider Athletics spokesperson.
When the MAAC tournament was played last March, the league announced fans would not be allowed to watch the remainder of the tournament on March. 11. The tournament itself was canceled the following day along with the NCAA March Madness tournament in a stunning move which prompted other closures.
Follow Dylan Manfre on Twitter for the latest on the women’s basketball team.