By Dylan Manfre
After gutting out a win against NJIT, the women’s basketball team faces another test in the new year: find a way to build momentum.
Though Rider’s 1-8 record does not appear to be anywhere near what fans are accustomed to seeing after what they saw from last year’s team, Milligan remains unfazed. She knows the level of effort in practice does not reflect the product people see on the court.
“The misconception [about this team] is the easy narrative ‘They lost six seniors, they lost Stella Johnson, they’re no good.’ That’s OK,” Milligan said. “We know what we’re doing and I believe in these kids. … I’m at peace with how we’re doing things. I don’t like our record. It sucks. But the 13 young ladies on that floor give me everything they’ve got every day.”
As the Broncs begin 2021 with a home series against Fairfield on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, it is as good a time as ever to capitalize on what they have done right.
Needing more scorers
Fairfield on paper has one of the best rotations in the conference, led by junior All-MAAC First Team selection Lou Lopez Senechal along with graduate students Sam Lewis and Katie Armstrong.
Lewis and Lopez-Senechal are the two top scorers in the league at 17.7 and 16.7 points per game, respectively. Fairfield also leads the conference in 3-point percentage, assists and has the second-highest scoring offense at 67.2 points per game. Granted, the Stags have only played four games and Rider played nine.
Rider’s gritty 57-53 win over NJIT showcased the first time the Broncs had three players score in double figures. Freshman guard Maya Hyacienth, who was recently named MAAC player of the Week, had a career high 20 points in the game. Senior forward Daija Moses had 15 but was plagued with three fouls and freshman guard Makayla Firebaugh had 11. Desperate for consistent scoring as it had a year ago, Rider will need at least three players in double-digits to contend with the top teams.
“I think we’re going to need four if not five in some games,” Milligan said. “I don’t think we’re built to have a 20-point scorer every night. I do think we’re built to have four or five kids average between, let’s say, nine and 13 [points per game]. I think we have four or five kids who can do that.”
Milligan dubbed Hyacienth as the fastest player on the team — Hyacienth agreed noting she never loses a sprint. According to Milligan, Hyacienth is one of a couple players that can keep up with Lopez-Senechal’s impeccable footwork and said she will be tasked with guarding her in the weekend series.
“[Lopez-Senechal] is just efficient. Her footwork is just really really good,” Milligan said. “And I think Maya and [Lenaejha Evans], Maya in particular, are going to be able to run her off the line a little bit and make her a bit uncomfortable.”
Hyacienth knows it will take a full group effort to at least split the series against Fairfield.
“Remembering the scout and trusting that everyone is paying their role,” Hyacienth said when asked what it would take to get past Fairfield.
Identifying and utilizing the depth
Especially if the Broncs are not at full strength, which is yet to be determined because of recent injuries, they will definitely need multiple players in double digits ito defeat Fairfield.
For the last two games, Rider played without sophomore center Victoria Toomey (concussion protocol). The Broncs were also without junior guard Amanda Mobley against NJIT. Milligan said Toomey had a full practice on Dec. 28 and “should be at 100% and ready to go [against Fairfield].” Milligan listed Mobley, who is the team’s returning leading scorer, as “day-to-day.”
In their places, Milligan inserted junior guard Lenaejha Evans at point guard and ran senior Daija Moses at center while freshman Raphaela Toussaint, who leads the team in rebounds at 4.4 per game, played power forward.
The majority of Rider’s depth is at the guard position. Hyacienth, Firebaugh and Evans each have experience at running point and at shooting guard too. Then throw sophomore guard Sophia DeMauro, who started one game this season, and freshman Molly Lynch and the Broncs have five guards who can compensate for Mobley if she misses more time.
“We’ve had a lot of different ways that we can play things, which is good,” Milligan said. “We can throw out a bigger lineup, a defensive lineup, a more offensive lineup. We can play without a true point guard.”
Hyacienth is one of the sophomores to see consistent starting minutes this season after heavy roster turnover. It was an adjustment for her since her role last season was to come in, hit a three or play defense in crunch situations.
“Now because it’s such a young team, I’m kind of like one of the older ones that’s had a bit more experience,” Hyacienth said. “It’s been more of a challenge to lead the team from a position where I wasn’t really leading the team before.”
Milligan added that the post depth will be at full strength again once Toomey is fully cleared and freshman center Sofie Bruintjes rejoins the team from her trip home to Netherlands.
Milligan added that the team talked with “medical people” and said Bruintjes will not have to quarantine for two weeks upon her return.
The advantage for Rider is the versatility it has with the lineups. Either one of the guard combos can suffice to make the game competitive but having Toomey back at center would be a boost.
Then incorporate junior forward Anna Ekerstedt into the mix to backup Toomey along with Bruintjes, and the Broncs have solid depth in the front court.
This will no doubt be an interesting series. Rider is coming off a win which it needed in the worst way possible and since it held Manhattan to score in the low 50s, it will be interesting to see what the second best team at defending the 3-point shot does against one of the best offensive teams in the MAAC.
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