By Jordan Hall
The last time Siena entered Alumni Gym, senior Ryan Thompson sent them home defeated, nailing the game-winning layup with 3.4 seconds left back on Feb. 27, 2009. This time around, the Saints left Lawrenceville with a drastically different outcome.
Siena pummeled Rider last Friday on ESPNU in a highly anticipated game for the Broncs, 80-54. Two days later, Rider rebounded, beating Canisius 86-70 on Senior Day to clinch the fifth seed in the MAAC Tournament and avoid the play-in round.
The Saints (23-6 overall, 16-1 MAAC) came into the televised matchup with a far better record and profile. They then proved themselves emphatically in front of a packed house of 1,650 people.
“The problem when you’re playing a team like Siena is that they have so many weapons,” said Head Coach Tommy Dempsey.
Siena owns an experienced and battle-tested group that has won two first-round NCAA tournament games in the last two years and was given a preseason rank of 20th best in the country by Sports Illustrated. The Saints’ entire starting five received All-MAAC honors, the first time that’s ever happened in conference history, and the difference showed against the Broncs.
Rider held a minor lead in the opening minutes, 10-9, and only trailed 22-18 halfway through the opening frame, but from then on, it was all Siena. The Saints ignited a 23-5 run that buried the Broncs before the second half started.
“We just weren’t able to execute at either end like we had hoped to,” said Dempsey.
Rider’s fortunes didn’t change after the break as Siena’s high-octane offense scored at will. The Saints opened the floodgates to start the final half, riding a 22-7 spurt to its largest lead of the contest, 69-35.
“It got away from us and once we got down, it’s really hard to chase a team that good,” Dempsey said. “They were too patient and too poised, and we just couldn’t get back in the game.”
The last 12 minutes of regulation featured little significance as Siena cruised to victory. The lone bright spot for the Broncs was sophomore Novar Gadson, who finished with a double-double, scoring a game-high 25 points and snatching 10 rebounds. Thompson, the MAAC’s most prolific scorer the past four weeks, was held in check with 10 points and five assists.
The Saints’ starting five, which ESPN college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb said could compete with anyone in the nation, was impressive. Four starters cashed in double figures with NBA prospect senior Edwin Ubiles leading the way with 21 points while America’s assist leader, senior Ronald Moore, dished out eight helpers.
With the loss to Siena, Rider’s final regular season contest against Canisius (14-16 overall, 8-10 MAAC) had even greater implications. The winner would decide who received a first-round bye in the conference tournament compared to an opening round date with last place Marist.
Seniors Robbie Myers and Thompson were honored prior to tipoff, and the Broncs seemed rejuvenated and regrouped.
The first half was tightly contested as expected. The frame consisted of nine lead changes and seven ties with neither team grabbing a large margin. The greatest advantage of the opening 20 minutes was a four-point lead held by Rider less than six minutes into the game.
The Broncs came out sharp early in the second half as they strung together a 13-6 run with junior Justin Robinson scoring eight during the span, giving Rider a 52-44 lead. The Golden Griffins countered with an 11-0 push, erasing the deficit and regaining the advantage 55-52.
Canisius didn’t trail the rest of the game until the Broncs closed out the contest with force. With less than 4:30 left to play, Rider erupted for 18 straight points while shutting out the Golden Griffins to capture the win.
Robinson defined clutch as he poured in 10 of the 18 final points while Thompson highlighted the scoring spree with an authoritative one-hand slam along the baseline. Myers punctuated the run with a three-pointer to give him his first field goal of the season as Alumni Gym exploded.
“We played with a sense of urgency down the stretch and guys stepped up and made big plays,” Dempsey said. “The last four minutes we dug in and it was a good way to close the regular season and a good way to close the game.”
Robinson had himself quite a day as he dropped a career-high 27 points, hitting a perfect 5-5 from long range.
“Those are the things he’s done all year for us,” Dempsey said. “He stepped up and delivered.”
Thompson, a First Team All-MAAC selection, chipped in 17 to go along with five rebounds and four assists.
With Niagara falling to Fairfield on Sunday, Rider leapt to the fifth spot in the conference to conclude the regular season with a 16-15 record overall and a 9-9 mark in league play. The Broncs now head to Albany for a matchup with fourth-seeded Saint Peter’s tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. in the MAAC Tournament.
“We have the confidence that if we play well, we can play with anybody,” said Dempsey.
By Jordan Hall