By Brandon Scalea
A year removed from a 21-win season and a second-place finish in the MAAC, the men’s basketball team is on the verge of pressing the panic button following its fourth-straight loss, including the first two conference games of the season and a heartbreaker to Wagner of the NEC.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett feels as though his team is letting wins slip away, but they have to keep moving forward.
“We’re not going to win them all, but we certainly would like to win them all.,” Baggett said. “We’re going to try and treat every game as a must-win. We need to concentrate better in games. There’s nothing we can do but prepare for our next game on Saturday.”
After being dominated at the hands of Rhode Island by 25 points on Nov. 29, Rider (1-8, 0-2 MAAC) looked to bounce back on Dec. 2 at Alumni Gym against in-state foe St. Peter’s, a team it swept last season.
St. Peter’s (3-4, 2-0 MAAC), inspired by a 25-point performance from freshman guard Antwon Portley, cruised to a convincing 73-61 win over the Broncs. Junior center Kahlil Thomas opened the scoring with a layup in the first minute, but the Broncs never led again. The Peacocks, however, led by as much as 23.
At the end of the first half, the visitors headed to the locker room with a 30-23 lead. This season, the Broncs have typically come out of the gate in the second half with temporary control of the game, going on a brief run. Against St. Peter’s, this was not the case.
The Peacocks went on an 18-6 run led by back-to-back three-pointers and a pair of field goals from Portley. He finished the game 10 for 15 from the field.
With 12:40 remaining in the game, the Broncs trailed 53-30.
From that point, the game consisted of Rider throwing up contested three-pointers in an effort to get back into it, while St. Peter’s stepped off the gas pedal. The Broncs were able to get the deficit to 11, before they ultimately fell by 12.
Despite the loss, graduate guard Teddy Okereafor had a solid night, with 17 points, while shooting 71 percent from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Kealen Ives also provided a spark for the Broncs, with 11 points and seven rebounds. Junior guard Jimmie Taylor had 11 points, but only shot 3 for 9 from the field.
Rider was also dominated on the glass, 37-26.
For the Broncs, this game was a chance to avenge the premature loss that knocked them out of the MAAC Tournament in March. Instead, they allowed the Peacocks to snap a four-game losing streak.
While Rider fans were left pondering the problems they have been seeing on the court, Okereafor had a simple explanation.
“I think we just haven’t been playing smart. We have been lacking confidence,” he said. “We haven’t been making the right plays at the end of the game when we have a lead or fighting hard when we’re down. There are too many defensive breakdowns.”
On Dec. 4, the woes continued for Rider when it traveled to Fairfield (4-4, 1-1 MAAC) to play another team that finished near the bottom of the standings last season.
Although it was able to reach the 70-point plateau for the first time this year, Rider lost to the home Stags 74-70.
Thankfully for the Broncs, the offense was not the problem in this contest, something they have struggled with since the season opener. This time, they grappled defensively. Fairfield was able to shoot 49 percent from the field and out-rebound Rider 36-33.
Okereafor had a season-high 25 points in the game, shooting 7 for 13 from the field and 5 for 9 from three-point range.
In an attempt to shake things up, Head Coach Kevin Baggett started Ives at point guard. The 5-foot-9 guard was able to set Okereafor up for a big night, while picking up 10 points himself.
“I think Kealen starting has added a ball-handler and allowed me to be more aggressive playing off the ball,” Okereafor said. “He’s an energy boost that can put pressure on the defense and does a good job of finding an open man.”
In the game, there were 16 lead changes, the final of which came when Fairfield extended its lead to 67-63 with under five minutes remaining. The Broncs were able to pull within 1 point, but couldn’t come back. Junior forward Xavier Lundy missed the potential game-tying three-pointer with under a minute to go before Fairfield iced the game with a pair of free throws.
On Dec. 8, the Broncs made it four-straight losses with a last second defeat at the hands of Wagner.
Despite a 22-point performance from Lundy and nine assists by Okereafor, the Broncs were beaten 65-64. After Lundy gave the Broncs the lead with 12 seconds left, Wagner was able to put home the rebound off a missed three-point shot with 2.2 seconds in the game.
At the buzzer, Okereafor would miss the potential game-winning prayer shot to send the stunned Alumni Gym crowd home empty-handed.