By Shaun Chornobroff
The Rider men’s basketball team continued to fight its way through the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) on Jan. 8 and 9, splitting two close games on the road against the Niagara Purple Eagles.
The split brings Rider’s record to 3-9 on the season and 3-5 in MAAC play, which puts Rider firmly among the cluster of teams fighting for a higher position in the conference standings.
Rider opened up its series against Niagara by scrapping its way towards a 76-70 win that could have gone to either side in what was arguably the team’s most complete performance of the season.
Rider found itself in a tie game with 1:20 remaining in regulation after leading by as many as nine points just minutes before. But the Broncs were able to shutout the Purple Eagles for the rest of the game and the offense was able to find enough points to escape with a victory.
Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson scored a go-ahead basket with thirty seconds left. And then sophomore guard Allen Powell played stout defense, forcing a turnover by getting his hand on a Niagara pass that deflected off of a Purple Eagle on its way out of bounds.
The turnover gave Rider the ball back with 12 seconds left and a chance to seal the victory.
“It was huge,” Baggett said of the Niagara turnover. “We’ve been able to defend teams actions, their plays, it’s once they break down and being able to stay in front of the ball and not overhelping.”
Ogemuno-Johnson once again found the ball in his hands and the junior center, who led the Broncs with 19 points, iced the game and gave the Broncs a 74-70 lead with a mere ten seconds left.
“He’s had games where he’s had segments here and there, spots here and there, but that’s the most complete from start to finish where I’ve seen him have success like that,” Baggett said of Ogemuno-Johnson’s performance.
After a loss against Fairfield on Jan. 2, Head Coach Kevin Baggett explained that the team could not win if the only players stepping up were sophomore Christian Ings and junior Dwight Murray Jr.
The guard duo played well, scoring 13 and 14 points respectively, but for once they had support and it was much more than Ogemuno-Johnson.
Junior forward Jeremiah Pope had eight points, including a crucial three pointer right before the half. Graduate transfer guard Rodney Henderson Jr. rediscovered his shooting stroke with timely threes and Dontrell McQuarter did a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, but the junior forward did have nine points in the game.
“It’s important… I want to try and give these guys experience and opportunities to get better because they are going to need to help us down the road,” Baggett said after the game. “Every little bit that you give these guys to grow and build their confidence is certainly what we are trying to get accomplished.”
After getting a hard fought win to open the series, Ogemuno-Johnson predicted the latter matchup of the two-game series was going to be a “dogfight”.
He was right and for the fourth straight series, Rider lost the second game of a back-to-back, this time losing a competitive battle with the Purple Eagles 66-55.
“I don’t think these kids get frustrated, they don’t get it, coaches get frustrated,” Bagette said bluntly after the loss. “These guys just get to the next game. They need to get pissed off more when they are beaten and blown by. It’s embarrassing.”
Niagara’s top-ranked scoring defense did a much better job of stifling the Broncs offense in this game, holding them without a made field goal for the final 6:11 of play.
Rider shot a putrid 28.6% from the field in the second half and 35.2% during the course of the game, as its woes from beyond the arc returned. Rider only made 4-of-20 three point attempts during the game and nine percent of its second half attempts.
“I think it compounds things when you’re not scoring and then you gotta go down and you got to be really good defensively to try and continue to give yourself a chance,” Baggett said. “I wish we could finish and make free throws, which we did last night.”
Rider once again struggled to contain reigning MAAC player of the week Marcus Hammond. Hammond scored 17 points during the first game, but in the second game showed how well-rounded he is on the floor.
The preseason first-team All-MAAC selection came incredibly close to a triple-double, scoring 12 points, many of them being in crunch time, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out eight assists.
Hammond hit a buzzer-beater last season to defeat Rider and continues to be an achilles heel for the Broncs.
Ogemuno-Johnson continued his stellar play, securing his first career double-double, scoring 10 points and notching a career-high 10 rebounds. The junior center was active on both ends with his rebounds split evenly between offense and defense.
“He’s playing well of late, again it’s all about experience,” Baggett explained. “He’s playing more so he’s coming along better.”
Baggett did mention that Ogemuno-Johnson may have been “playing fatigued” and pointed out that the 6-foot-8 big man missed some layups that the team needed him to make.
Dwight Murray Jr. once again paced the Broncs in points, scoring 17 on the day and shot a perfect six-for-six from the charity stripe.
The one place Rider shot the ball well was from the free throw line, making 72.2% of their free throws and continuing to be one of the best teams in the MAAC.
Rider will need to maintain that consistency from the free throw if it hopes to take down the MAAC preseason Player of the Year Jalen Pickett and the Siena Saints at Alumni Gym on Jan. 15 at 7 pm.
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