By Jake Tiger
The Broncs brought the drama; the kids brought the juice.
With a crucial Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) win on the line, Rider emerged victorious on Feb. 23 in a 68-59 overtime thriller against Mount St. Mary’s in Rider’s “Kids Day Out” game on ESPNU.
“I definitely think, even beside the basketball, this was definitely the most fun game we’ve had this season,” said graduate student guard Amanda Mobley after the win.
For the nationally-broadcast game, the bleachers of Alumni Gym were packed with students from seven local elementary and middle schools sitting shoulder to shoulder, hooting and hollering over every dribble.
“It was an amazing atmosphere. I mean, there wasn’t a gap [in the energy] anywhere,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan. “It was so fun to see the kids. … I hope a lot of them come back because I think we put on a good show.”
Before the game, it became immediately clear that the gaggle of kids would make their presence felt when they clambered through almost the entirety of the national anthem.
The murmur soon grew into a high-pitched roar when the game began. The Broncs scored first and were treated to an ear-piercing explosion from their home crowd.
But the Mountaineers quickly fired back on their first possession, and, strangely, were greeted by similar encouragement from the kids.
“When Mount scored their first bucket, I heard them cheer and I was like, ‘OK, got to fix that,’” said Milligan. “We scored the next couple and I think they caught on and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we cheer for the team in the white.’”
Rider and Mount traded baskets for much of the first half, feeling more like a high-level chess match.
The Mountaineers were up 23-21 when a timeout was called halfway through the second quarter. Both teams huddled tightly at their sidelines, carefully strategizing their next move while 1,200 children screeched every word of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme song.
The duel continued into halftime, and Rider entered the locker room trailing 29-27.
While the Broncs regrouped, senior forward Mervin James and junior guard Corey McKeithan of Rider men’s basketball hosted a series of activities at midcourt, including musical chairs with kids from the audience and a dance competition between the visiting teachers and players from the men’s basketball team; the teachers won after a vicious Dougie.
The halftime festivities came to a climactic end when James led the Rider faithful in a passionate, fiery rendition of “Baby Shark” — a spiritual moment.
The battlecry powered Rider through the second half, eventually taking a 53-48 lead with one minute left in the fourth quarter, its largest advantage up to that point.
However, a series of self-inflicted wounds allowed the Mountaineers to worm their way back in, and after capitalizing on an offensive foul by the Broncs, the game was tied at 53 with 21 seconds remaining.
“I think that the common theme has been that we can shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes,” said senior center Victoria Toomey.
Rider had a chance to take the lead, but its layup rolled off the rim and into the hands of the Mountaineers, who then called a timeout with 1.4 seconds left, enough time for one final shot.
Out of the timeout, an inbounding Mountaineer lobbed a pass over the defense and into the paint.
Slivers of seconds ticked away; 1,200 children screamed their little hearts out.
The Mountaineer entrusted with the ball backed down Mobley, pivoted toward the basket and lofted a falling baseline floater as time expired.
The shot swished through and the Mount bench, just feet away, erupted in celebration. Upon review, however, the game-winning shot was a tenth of a second too late, and both teams played on.
“We were pretty confident that the refs were going to come back and say it was no good, so we kind of just moved on to the next five minutes,” said Toomey, who finished with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and four blocks.
The Mountaineers struck first in overtime to go up 55-53, but from there, it was almost all Broncs.
Rider ripped off five straight points, and finished the extra period with a 15-4 run. Junior guard Makayla Firebaugh sank 6-of-6 free throws in the final minute to ice the Mountaineers.
Earlier in the season, Rider fell to Mount 74-52. The Broncs have certainly grown up since then.
“The way regulation ended, we could have allowed that to kind of knock us down,” said Milligan after the 68-59 win. “We just got back in that huddle, we said ‘That’s done, we’ve got to move on.’”
With an upward trajectory, Rider has two final chances to hone its skills before the MAAC Tournament on March 7.
The Broncs first head north for a meeting with Manhattan on March 2. The game begins at 7 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN3.