By Thomas Regan and Carlos Toro
The men’s basketball team clinched a first-round bye for the MAAC Championship with a win against Quinnipiac on Feb. 19, but a Niagara team that entered play in last place in the conference snapped Rider’s five-game winning streak on Feb. 21.
Rider (19-10, 13-5 MAAC) entered the game against Quinnipiac on a four-game win streak.
The first several minutes of the opening half were competitive, but a 3-pointer from junior guard Teddy Okereafor with 11:42 left in the first half ignited a 10-0 run.
Quinnipiac (14-13, 8-10 MAAC) tried to get back in the game, but couldn’t get close, as the first half ended 41-31.
Rider’s lead continued to grow in the second half, reaching 22 points following a layup by sophomore forward Xavier Lundy with 14:45 remaining in the contest.
However, senior center Matt Lopez crashed into the base of the basket and left with an apparent knee injury, while the referees called a technical against Head Coach Kevin Baggett, who was looking for a foul on the play. Lopez did not return, finishing with 8 points and five rebounds.
Without Lopez, the Broncs allowed the Bobcats to claw their way back into the game, getting within 3 points of Rider at 74-71 with 5:23 remaining in the game. However, sophomore guard Jimmie Taylor’s 22 points and Okereafor’s 21 points helped seal the 94-83 victory.
The game against Niagara (6-21, 5-13 MAAC) started with another back-and-forth battle in which the Purple Eagles took advantage of Rider without Lopez, who was held out of the game.
Niagara redshirt sophomore guard Emile Blackman made an early 3-point shot to tie the game at 11 with 15:44 remaining in the first half. After the Broncs retook the lead, Blackman sank another 3-pointer to momentarily give Niagara a 14-13 lead. The first half ended tied at 35-35.
Lundy and Taylor scored the first 6 points of the second half, but Blackman, who entered the game averaging 13 points per game, continued to give the Broncs trouble, scoring 7 unanswered points to reclaim the lead with 14:49 left in the game.
Rider eventually went up 49-47 with a little more than 10 minutes remaining until 5 more points from Blackman led Niagara on a 10-0 scoring run.
The Purple Eagles went up 59-51 with just over three minutes remaining, when Rider scored 7 unanswered points to pull within one with 28 seconds remaining. Blackman then sank four of Niagara’s final six free throws to clinch the 63-58 upset.
Okereafor explained that the loss to Niagara was a wake-up call for the Broncs.
“We got two games left before the MAAC Tournament and we have to focus on defense,” Okereafor said. “Today was a reminder that any team can beat you.”
With two games remaining, Rider is one of five teams with a first-round bye. The Broncs will travel to Monmouth (16-12, 12-5 MAAC) to face off against the third-place team on Feb. 26. Then they return home for their final regular season game against Marist (5-22, 4-13 MAAC) on March 1. However, Rider may be without Lopez, who underwent an MRI on Feb. 24 and is listed as day-to-day.
Baggett believes his team must regroup and return to the basics in order to finish the season strong.
“We just got to refocus, and I think this game against Niagara got our guys’ attention,” Baggett said. “We have to go back and do what we have always been doing well all year long.”