By Dylan Manfre
Sixteen days into February, and the Rider women’s basketball team is still searching for signs that it can make a run into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament beginning in 23 days.
Two losses to Manhattan on Feb. 10 and Saint Peter’s on Feb. 12 do little to show Rider is nearing Head Coach Lynn Milligan’s goal of peaking during mid-to-late February, but she remains confident that her team is there.
Rider vs. Manhattan
Two words stood out among what Milligan shouted as she paced the sidelines: “box out.”
That was the game plan that Rider did a spotty job of executing in its 56-49 loss to Manhattan on Feb. 10, which dropped the team to 1-8 at Alumni Gym.
Rider dealt with players it did not need to in its first meeting against the Jaspers in early January, one being center Courtney Warley. She leads the conference in rebounding and is a physical force in the paint. The Manhattan graduate student ended the game with 22 points and 13 boards.
Like the last time these two teams met in January, the Broncs allowed Manhattan to erase their lead. It was not 17, this time it was only five, but it was a rough second half for Rider nonetheless.
The Broncs were outscored 21-9 in the final period, and the palpable energy Rider conjured in the opening half dissipated with each missed shot.
“I don’t know what throws us off,” Milligan said. “You got to be able to get stops in the fourth quarter and get a good possession and a good shot and we didn’t do that good enough tonight.”
Manhattan’s lead grew because it secured second-chance points and beat Rider 16-2 in that stat. It also had a 24-plus rebounding advantage.
Sophomore guard Makayla Firebaugh said the team has good practices but the issue is that they have not translated to the game yet. She still believes Rider is on track to hit the “peak” Milligan hopes to achieve by mid-February.
“Practices have to be game-like for us and which lately they have been,” Firebaugh said. “I think we’re on track, I think tonight was a little setback. I think we’re gonna win.”
The Broncs had palpable energy during the first half. It was ushered in with defensive stops and a few buckets from sophomore forward Raphaela Toussaint, who did not see much action in the first quarter. Firebaugh hit a pair of 3-pointers pulling the Broncs to within one going into the break. She was 4-of-10 from long range and the only player to see all 20 minutes of action in the first half.
Manhattan’s top scorer DeeDee Davis was held to four points on 1-for-6 shooting and Brazil Harvey-Carr, who Jaspers Head Coach Heather Vulin said should be in the All-Conference conversation, had five.
Manhattan erased a five-point advantage to start the fourth. The game had the characteristics of the mid-January contest, but a bit more defense from Rider kept the game close by unveiling a tight full-court press.
What plagued the Broncs was a lack of offense in crunch time. Manhattan’s lead grew, as the Broncs missed shot after shot. The energy Rider started the second half with vanished.
“I would like to say no but I believe it did,” Firebaugh said. “I think our talk went down and I think in the fourth quarter when it’s a close game like that, it can’t happen. And that’s when we need to step up and talk the most, including myself.”
Saint Peter’s Review
A rematch of the 2020 MAAC semifinals, Rider has now faced every conference opponent once this season. It has yet to sweep a series but can secure another split later in the year after losing to Saint Peter’s 69-56 at Run Baby Run Arena on Feb. 12.
Saint Peter’s (10-12, 7-6 MAAC) ran its offense through a few different players. The Peacocks had multiple runs facilitated by Kassondra Brown and Kendrea Williams, who is the third-highest scorer in the MAAC. Brown was a dominant threat in the post that silenced Rider’s offense for a good portion of the game, especially in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Milligan said. “We’re just not quite getting over that hump of making that big bucket … It’s been kind of an Achilles heel for us, obviously, for a lot of this season.”
Brown finished the game with a whopping 20 points and 15 rebounds. Senior guard Lenaejha Evans was the leading scorer for Rider with 16 as the Broncs shot just over 39% from the field.
Rider made Saint Peter’s hustle in transition but had to be careful with the forward passes after plenty was tipped and nearly stolen. Still, the Broncs converted the fast-break buckets into a 10-8 advantage at the end of the game. Despite Brown’s presence down low, Rider shocked the Peacocks scoring 28 points in the paint.
The first half was a game of offensive runs. Junior guard Jessika Schiffer paced the Broncs offense as Rider outscored Saint Peter’s 12-3 at the second media timeout and shot 62% midway through the second quarter. The shooting infused some life into an at times stagnant offense, that was beleaguered by travel calls.
Saint Peter’s rode a stifling offensive run into the fourth quarter that saw the Peacocks go up 47-40 two and a half minutes into the quarter. Once Rider got going, it seemed that it was playing catch-up the entire time.
That has been a common theme for Rider over the last few games. Once the final quarter comes around, the Broncs cannot seem to mount a comeback, especially down nine with 3:30 left in the game. Sophomore guard Raphaela Toussaint fouled Williams from behind the arc and she hit all three free throws putting the Peacocks up 12.
“We’re trying to do everything so perfect that sometimes you do it wrong,” Milligan said. “The overall feel of that fourth quarter I think we get a little bit either too tight or a little bit too anxious.”
The Broncs have faced every MAAC team at least once and it will find out on either Feb. 19 vs. Canisius or Feb. 26 vs. Saint Peter’s if they can secure a series sweep of a team. Rider’s next three games are against Monmouth, Canisius and Marist all at home — a place the Broncs have struggled at all season. It is a league-worst 1-8 at Alumni Gym.
“You want it so bad for them and you know the work that they’re putting in every day and what they want, and to not see them get it is hard,” Milligan said.
“It’s not like we’re not practicing or not doing what we’re supposed to do. … You want them to feel that success.”