By Dylan Manfre
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — After being deprived of the opportunity to play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championship game because of the coronavirus pandemic last year, the women’s basketball team is on the cusp of a championship game appearance once again.
No. 3 Saint Peter’s bumped out the Iona Gaels in the early game on March 11, exactly 365 days after Rider’s 2020 MAAC tournament game, and are poised to face the Broncs in the semifinals on March 12 at 1:30 p.m.
It is also a battle between the 2020 Coach of the Year Lynn Milligan and the 2021 Co-Coach of the Year Marc Mitchell, who led his team to a 10-9 regular-season record in league play. The Peacocks already have one win against the Broncs this season, when Taiah Thornton dropped a 30-point game in 39 minutes on Jan. 16.
Milligan has touted Rider sophomore guard Maya Hyacienth, who only played three minutes in the first meeting against Saint Peter’s because of injury, as one of the best defenders on the young roster. Usually, she puts Hyacienth on a team’s best player and scorer. Hyacienth figures to be a solid matchup against Thornton.
Though Rider won the first game earlier in the campaign, 65-62, Thornton managed to put up 17 points without Hyacienth’s astute defense.
“Obviously Maya is one of our better premiere defenders so not having her on the defensive end obviously affects us,” Milligan said back in January.
Milligan later said the Broncs’ defensive woes were in part to not having its defensive core in the backcourt.
“If we have breakdowns where we’re not on quite the same page, those are the ones that kind of catch up to us,” Milligan said.
Rider made the smart adjustment defensively to go with a zone defense against Quinnipiac as opposed to the man set it deployed in the opening round vs Monmouth. It worked well against the Bobcats and helped put clamps on MAAC Player of the Year Mackenzie DeWees who finished with two points. But that does not matter to Mitchell. He will take anything Rider throws at them.
“We’re good. We’re good against any defense if we want to be,” Mitchell said after his team defeated the No. 6 seed Iona Gaels 61-50. “It doesn’t really matter what you throw at us if we play our A-game it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, what we’re playing or where we’re playing.”
Aside from having Hyacienth’s presence on the court, the Quinnipiac contest showed that the Broncs can get something they seldom have — scoring from a variety of players.
Sophomore forward Anna Ekerstedt set and tied her career-high in points, 10, in both tournament games. Rider saw fantastic 3-point contributions from its forwards such as freshman Raphaela Toussaint and senior Daija Moses. The three frontcourt players combined to shoot 6-for-7. Rider received contributions from everyone.
“Anna putting two games back to back obviously the two best games she’s had in a Rider uniform … and it came at the perfect time,” Milligan said after the Quinnipiac victory. “Raphie [against Monmouth] having those freshman jitters and really came back today.”
The winner of Rider and Saint Peter’s will play the winner between the other semifinal game of Marist and Fairfield in the MAAC championship game on March 13 at 11 a.m.
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