Climbing the Ladder: Quest for MAAC title begins with Iona tonight

Junior forward Jason Thompson had 24 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in the season finale against Niagara.By Eamon Ducey

It’s not the big dance, but it’s the only dance Rider has been invited to.

So far, at least.

The overly talented yet somewhat inconsistent men’s basketball team looks to punch its ticket to another dance ­— one a little bigger and a lot more nationalized — this coming weekend when it plays at the MAAC championship tournament, hosted by Fairfield University.

Rider (15-14 overall, 9-9 MAAC) finished the regular season exactly where they were projected to finish: a mediocre seventh place. Because only the top six teams in the conference get a first-round bye, Rider is forced to play in the dreaded play-in round on Friday against last-seeded Iona (2-27 overall, 1-17 MAAC).

Iona’s only conference win of the season came against Rider, 69-57, on Feb. 3. The win snapped Iona’s appalling 22-game losing streak.

“Whether we’re playing the first place or the last place team, we try to focus on Rider,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey told Rider Sports Information after that infamous loss. “We didn’t play well. It being their first win wasn’t that important to us.”

Rider could have avoided the extra night’s worth of work in the MAAC tournament had it swept its last two games of the regular season, against conference rivals Canisius and Niagara, but the team came away with only one win.

“We are going to try to go up there [to Canisius and Niagara] and walk away with two wins,” senior guard Terrance Mouton said after his last home game, a 58-51 defeat to Murray State in the Bracket Buster game on Feb. 17. “We need some momentum going into the MAAC.”

Junior guard Kamron Warner scored a career-high 24 points as Rider effortlessly overpowered Canisius, 81-72, last Friday night. Sophomore guard Harris Mansell added 12 points of his own and handed out a career-high nine assists. Both players likely gained confidence from the game that will prove beneficial heading into the tournament, where guard play is key to advancing.

Junior forward Jason Thompson added a double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Thompson finished the regular season ranked 10th in the country in rebounding and 29th in scoring.

And the lone senior on the roster, Mouton, scored the 1,100th point of his career.

For Rider, the win was the first in a two-step process to clinch a sixth-place seeding in the standings.

But everything — an opportunity at a first-round bye plus some much needed momentum — unraveled two days later when the Broncs lost to a physically dominant Niagara squad, 89-77. With the win, Niagara (19-11 overall, 13-5 overall) clinched second place in the conference tournament.

“There’s not a huge gap between them and us,” said Dempsey following the defeat to the Purple Eagles. “They’re a little bit better than us right now, a little bit older, a little more physical.”

Dempsey’s point was emphasized by the fact that Rider only got 29 rebounds compared to the 41 that Niagara pulled down off the glass. What was worse was that Niagara had 12 offensive rebounds compared to just five for the Broncs.

Despite the loss, Thompson had a notable game with 24 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Thompson has moved to 14th in Rider history with 1,300 career points, and has 734 rebounds, sixth highest in school history.

Mansell added 17 points and Mouton scored eight from the free-throw line and 16 for the night. Forward Charron Fisher, who echoed Thompson’s outstanding performance with 24 points and nine rebounds of his own, led Niagara in scoring and rebounding.

Fisher was aided by three teammates — senior forward J.R. Duffey, senior guard Lorenzo Miles and freshman guard Tyrone Lewis — who scored in double-digit figures and two teammates — junior guard Stanley Hodge and sophomore center Benson Egemonye — that grabbed seven rebounds.

If Rider defeats Iona, it will face Niagara on Saturday. Rider is 0-6 against the top three seeds – Marist, Niagara and Loyola – but it played all three teams close at home, falling one point short in each contest.

In a conference where there is no clear-cut favorite to win, the Broncs have shown they can hang in the trenches with anybody, especially if they shoot the ball well.

“We are one of the better shooting teams in our conference, especially from three,” said Dempsey.

Marist was projected to win the conference in a poll taken before the start of the season. They won the regular season title with a 14-4 league record.

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