By Carolo Pascale
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – After a ludicrous win over No. 1 seed Iona in the quarterfinal round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament, the Broncs weren’t able to climb the mountain to the finals, falling to Monmouth in the semifinal game 72-68 on March 11.
“First of all I’m just very thankful for our guys, it was an up and down year for us,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “We knew we had the talent to be here. It was a great game but unfortunately, we were on the losing end of it.”
The atmosphere inside of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall was incredible for the semifinal game. Both Rider and Monmouth had many fans in attendance which added to the game’s intensity . Even New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy showed up to show support for all of the three of the state’s teams left in the tournament.
“Well you’ve got three of the four finalists of the MAAC Tournament are from New Jersey,” Murphy, who attended the game with his wife, told The Rider News. “Rider and Monmouth are both two great universities in New Jersey, two great basketball programs, we happened to be in town, and wanted to come here and show our Jersey colors.”
The Hawks opened the scoring, going on a fast and furious 10-0 run to start the first half. While the Hawks went on the run, the Broncs struggled to make baskets, having many bounce the wrong way.
But once the hero of the game against Iona, senior guard Dwight Murray Jr., made the first basket for the Broncs at 15:25, they went on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to three.
Part of the reason that run happened was some excellent defense from junior guard Sedrick Altman and sophomore forward Nehemiah Benson. Altman was swapping with junior guard Allen Powell on covering Monmouth’s George Papas.
“He’s a good player. He’s got a lot going for him,” said Powell.
After that run, Powell turned up the offense even more, getting a steal and layup, giving the Broncs their first lead of the game at 8:09. Powell went on an 8-0 run by himself to help the Broncs take the lead.
The Broncs started to move the ball well too, getting Monmouth to open up inside, getting passes down low and finding kickout passes to Powell for threes.
Monmouth responded well to Rider’s offensive pressure with a solid offense of its own, but the Broncs took a one point, 30-29 lead into halftime.
The second half of the game saw the Broncs continue the offense from the end of the first half, going on a momentum-building 7-0 run. But the Hawks were able to respond with a 4-0 run of their own and tie the game at 15:39 in the second half.
Papas was a game changer in the second half for the Hawks, matching Powell by going on an eight point run all by himself.
With eight minutes left to play in the game, the Hawks had taken back the lead 51-49. Both teams were battling it out, going basket for basket. The Broncs were able to keep the score within two points for a long time, and Murray eventually tied it at 62 points apiece with 1:33 left to play.
But what happened next was the real turning point of the game, as graduate student Dimencio Vaughn committed a series of critical fouls. Vaughn committed three fouls on Papas.
“I can’t answer what Dimencio was doing,” said Baggett. “I have no idea.”
Papas was sent to the line four times in the final minute of play, shooting a perfect 9-for-9 on his attempts. All ten of the Hawks’ final points came off of free throws, which sealed the game, knocking the Broncs out of the MAAC Tournament with a final score of 72-68.
“We’ve got to get stronger. We got to get into the gym to get better. We got to improve some of our recruiting,” said Baggett. “We just can’t make some of the mistakes that we made. We’ve done that in the past, which has cost us games where you can’t do that. Those are things that we will continue to teach our guys, watch the film going into the summer and then get ready for next year.”
Murray finished the game with 20 points and Powell finished with 19 on 5-of-7 shooting from three.
With the loss, it means that it was the last game that Vaughn and senior guard Jeremiah Pope played in a Rider uniform.
“I’m thankful for him [Vaughn],” said Baggett. “He does some good things. And he’ll go on to play professionally. I wish him well.”
The Broncs season now comes to an end, but Murray is very confident about his team, and how they will be next year.
“We already talked about it today,” said Murray, “And we’re definitely going to win the whole thing next year. Don’t be surprised if we go undefeated. We’re going to be the number one team next year. That’s how I feel.”
The Broncs will regroup for next season, and Murray’s statement to the rest of the MAAC was clear: “Next year we’ll be here for five days and have a ring on our finger.”