Past and present coaches and players reflect on MAAC heartbreak

By Shaun Chornobroff

Marlon Guild has seen everything the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) can show a person in his more than a decade-long stint in the MAAC. The longtime assistant coach, who has served at Rider and Saint Peter’s, is as seasoned as they come. 

In 2011, he experienced the greatest euphoria the conference tournament can provide: a MAAC Tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. 

“I’m going to make you laugh at this, as a grown man I actually cried,” Guild said reminscing of winning the 2011 MAAC Tournament with Saint Peter’s. 

Winning a conference tournament, and the jubilation that comes with it, is the beauty of March in college basketball. But on the other side of every amazing buzzer-beater and historic moment is a team leaving an arena in disappointment, stuck asking themselves a million “What if” questions.

Rider hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1994, but within that time there have been many “what if” moments for Rider’s basketball team The most recent letdown came in March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the conference tournament before a talented Rider team could ever take the floor in Atlantic City. 

“I think the one thing that did happen to us was COVID[ -19] last year,” Guild said in a recent interview. “I’m a firm believer that we were finally going to get over that hump last March. The walkthrough that we had the day of the game, we were supposed to play Niagara, as a coach we usually go over the opposition’s plays and how we are going to guard it… We didn’t even have to go over anything that day. And it was just like, ‘woah, I don’t know how much we’re going to win by today. But we’re going to win this game and it’s going to propel us.’”

The 2020 Rider team was veteran-laden and had proven they could beat any team on a given night. Guild said the team, from head coach Kevin Baggett down to the managers, all believed they would exit the tournament victorious. “We were all aligned like no other and it’s the same feeling that I had at Saint Peter’s, we were all aligned.”

Having chemistry and being exceptionally talented and experienced is crucial, but nothing can quite derail a team’s chances at winning a conference tournament like an injury. And the basketball gods have cast the injury bug on Rider on multiple occasions when it mattered most. 

Ryan Thompson was a star for the Broncs. Sure, he may have somewhat been in the shadow of his older brother and eventual lottery selection in the NBA Draft, Jason Thompson, but Ryan Thompson was a star for Rider and even earned an NBA contract himself once he graduated. 

In 2008, the entire campus was buzzing about the men’s basketball team getting to the tournament. Jason Thompson, in his senior season, had one of the greatest seasons in MAAC history, averaging 20.2 points and 118 rebounds per game in conference play and the MAAC Player of the Year. The younger Thompson had a breakout sophomore campaign and flourished into an incredible scorer making him a member of the All-MAAC second team. During their time at Rider, both brothers were supported by junior Harris Mansell, whose performance for the Broncs was crucial in helping the team become Co-Regular Season Champions with Siena. 

With the Thompson brothers in their last hurrah until Jason Thompson went onto greener pastures, the stars were aligned for Rider to make the NCAA tournament. 

Until they weren’t.

Rider made it to the finals of the MAAC Tournament, but by the time it got there, it was beaten up. Mansell was playing through an injury for the semifinal and final, even worse, Ryan Thompson suffered a concussion in the quarterfinal sealing Rider’s fate. 

Thompson was forced to sit on the bench as his older brother concluded his college career by carrying Rider in the semifinal before losing 74-53 to Siena in the championship game. 

“It was like getting teeth pulled out, especially because you wanted to be out there and felt like you could be out there, but it is out of your hands when you’re dealing with a concussion,” the younger Thompson brother said. 

Despite losing by more than 20 points, Thompson thinks the team would have won if they were healthy. 

“I definitely would think so because right before that we beat Siena… by a pretty good amount I believe,” Thompson said referring to the 89-75 victory his team enjoyed on the Saints home floor that season. “And we had a high going into the MAAC tournament, knowing [Jason] was getting recruited by NBA scouts. We were on a roll for a while, I think we had the most single-season wins [in school history]. We felt like that was our time and it kind of hurt everybody that it didn’t work.”

More than a decade removed from their time in Lawrenceville, the Thompson brothers, who are two of the program’s most successful players of the 21st century, now look back at their MAAC Tournament memories with a trophy forever missing.

“You always look at it as a missed opportunity, especially me and Jay always talk about it like that our chance if it didn’t happen,” Ryan Thompson explained. “But you never know, I could have been fine that game and terrible the next game and we [could have] lost, you just never know. You kinda put the positive on the unknown, but we definitely felt like that was the opportunity that we had and it slipped out of our hands.”

For as much heartbreak as the program has seen, no one is as well versed in the trials and tribulations of March at Rider than Athletic Director Don Harnum. 

Harnum was an assistant coach on two teams that went to the NCAA Tournament in early 1993 and 1994 before becoming the team’s head coach as they transitioned into the MAAC. 

Harnum led the team to the 2005 MAAC Championship game in Jason Thompson’s freshman year, but at the time he wasn’t the team’s best player. That honor belonged to Jerry Johnson, a three-time first-team All-MAAC selection, a 2,000 point scorer, a 2013 Rider Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee and a player who had a knack for the big moment. 

And what bigger moment than the MAAC Tournament his senior year.

“I remember winning the quarterfinal game and I still remember Jerry Johnson… being so happy that when we won he came off the court and just jumped into my arms and practically knocked me over,” Harnum said reminiscing. “I had a tan suit on and I went to the press conference and I had sweat stains all over because he was like soaking wet coming off the court and put me in a bear hug.”

Rider escaped the semifinals, but not without harm. Johnson, in his second-to-last collegiate game, picked up an injury that limited him in the finals, an 81-59 loss to Niagara. 

Harnum said Johnson was at “about 50, 60%” strength. The loss was Johnson’s final game as a Bronc and Harnum’s last as head coach, he ascended into the athletic director position following the season. 

Even with that said, it may not have been as brutal as Harnum’s experience in 2002. 

The 2002 Rider team had the player of the year, Mario Porter, a freshman Jerry Johnson who won rookie of the year and Harnum was named coach of the year and led the team to the first seed in the conference tournament. 

“I’m sitting there watching the play-in game and Canisius was beating somebody by 20,” Harnum said. “Canisius was kind of a feel-good team at the time, they were the eight seed. But their eight number was a strange way to get there because they had a month period where they were really injured.”

Rider got into two dogfights with the Griffin’s during the season and walked away victorious in two games that went down to the wire.

“I’m watching them really play great in the game and you got the one next to you and they got the eight and it seems like ‘oh well you should be fine,’” Harnum said. “And I knew it was going to be trouble.”

Trouble it was indeed. 

“It was a tough matchup for us, we actually played well and ended up going to overtime,” Harnum explained. “We had a one-and-one up one at the end of overtime, we missed the front end and to this day I still see the Canisius player hitting a spinning bank shot over my 6-[foot-10] center at the buzzer and we lose by one. It was one of the worst feelings ever, you feel like you let everybody down.”

The conclusion to the 85-84 defeat is etched in Harnum’s memory and he will likely never forget it. 

“Every time March Madness rolled around they showed Hodari Mallory, I’ll never forget that name in my life, that was his name Hodary Mallory from Canisius,” Harnum said bluntly. “Hard name to forget and hard name to unsee what I saw.”

March Madness is arguably the most eccentric and emotion-filled time of year for most sports fans. The constant buzzer-beaters and raw emotion make it a one-of-a-kind event, but since Rider entered the MAAC more than two decades ago, March has been plagued with a lot of sorrow. 

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