By Brandon Scalea
The men’s basketball team is in a nine-way tie for second place in the conference following a split of its first two conference games.
On Dec. 1, Rider finally got to play at home for the first time this season, but the festivities were spoiled by Fairfield, who pulled away in the second half to win, 76-67. Four days later, the Broncs hosted Siena, a team picked to finish second in the MAAC preseason poll. Rider used a late surge to top the Saints in a pulse-pounding game, 71-69.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett said he was happy the team was able to regroup and avoid an 0-2 conference hole for the second-straight year. In 2015-16, Rider started MAAC play 0-5.
“I’m proud of our guys tonight and we needed this win,” he said. “I don’t think Siena will ever shoot this poorly again. Tonight, we had the chance to prove to people in the league where we stand, and we certainly needed this win because it was at home.”
However, in the previous game, the Broncs simply couldn’t defend Fairfield down the stretch. Stags forward Tyler Nelson dropped a career-high 38 points, shooting 11-for-20 from the field. There was a span in the second half where he hit a three-pointer in three consecutive possessions.
Rider had to play from behind early. After senior forward Xavier Lundy hit a layup to open the scoring, the Stags went on a 9-0 run. The teams exchanged buckets for a while, before Lundy and senior guard Jimmie Taylor hit consecutive threes to give the Broncs their first lead, 16-15.
But Fairfield ultimately headed to the locker room at halftime with a comfortable 42-35 edge.
In the second half, the closest Rider closed the gap was to five, when it cut the lead to 70-65 with 1:55 left in regulation. Fairfield ended up taking the game by nine.
Taylor led the Broncs with 23 points and Lundy had 14. Freshman guard Stevie Jordan had an early field goal, but left the game in the first half when he fell under the basket support and his mouth banged into his knee. He needed five stitches, according to Baggett.
On Dec. 5, in a game that Rider tried desperately to give away in the final moments, the Broncs earned their first conference win of the season, knotting them up with nine other MAAC teams. Monmouth is the only team at 2-0, while Manhattan is the only 0-2 team.
Siena’s Nico Clareth had a chance to win the game in the waning seconds when he was hit with a beautiful, no-look pass. Clareth’s wide-open three-point attempt sailed long, and the rebound fell into the hands of graduate forward Norville Carey as the horn sounded and the crowd of over 1,500 erupted in unison. Clareth, who became a sharpshooter for Siena in his sophomore season, was 0-for-8 from three-point land. Siena was 1-for-19 as a unit.
Baggett said he resorted to some strong body language on the sideline to will the last shot away from the net.
“I’m leaning back, I’m trying everything I can to make it not go in,” he said. “Clareth’s a really good player, and I even said to him after the game, ‘You scare the heck out of me.’ I don’t know if there’s going to be another night they shoot 1-for-19, but I’m glad they shot 1-for-19 tonight.”
In the first half, Lundy kept the Broncs in it. He knocked down 16 points and didn’t miss from beyond the arc, while Taylor and senior forward Kahlil Thomas combined for just two points. Lundy finished with 20.
The Saints led by as much as five early on, but every time it looked like the visitors would pull away, Rider had an answer. At halftime, the Broncs trailed by one, 44-43.
In the second, Rider was forced to play a style it isn’t used to — fast-paced. Being statistically one of the slowest-moving offenses in the nation, the Broncs had to adjust to Siena’s up-tempo play. Taylor came alive in the final half and hit a pair of big threes from the corner. He finished 3-for-8 from the field, notching nine points and three rebounds.
Twice in the second half Rider failed to hit the front end of a one-and-one, both leading to 6-0 Siena runs. The Saints’ largest lead of the night was 65-58 with 5:47 left, but the Broncs went on a quick 11-4 run to take a 69-68 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Lundy said the team showed growth from last year, being able to close out a tight game.
“The end of the game was a little scary because last year, it seemed like whenever we were in these situations, it always went the opposite way for us,” he said. “It seemed like today, whenever they got another chance, we just stayed with it. We did a good job of staying locked in on defense.”
Through its first seven games, Rider is 4-3 overall, 1-1 in the conference, a nice turnaround from last year’s 1-6, 0-2 start in its first seven.
The Broncs’ next game will be on the West Coast when they take on Pacific in Stockton, California, on Dec. 10. They’ll return home for another non-conference game against Kennesaw State on Dec. 14.