By Brandon Scalea
There is a popular saying that goes “the third time’s the charm.”
As the men’s basketball team prepared for its MAAC quarterfinal matchup against in-state rival Monmouth, it had the chance to bring this term to fruition. After being swept in the regular season series, including a last-second loss at Alumni Gym and a 21-point loss in West Long Branch, eighth-seeded Rider had the chance to take revenge in its biggest game yet.
Unfortunately for the Broncs, the Hawks proved yet again that they may in fact be a team of destiny in 2015-16. In a low-scoring game that saw both teams struggle from the field, the MAAC’s top seed played solid defense and took its third-straight game against Rider, 59-48.
However, the Broncs had to battle just to make it to the quarterfinals. In March, most teams follow the old mantra “survive and advance,” and this was exactly what Rider needed to do in its first-round game against Quinnipiac.
On March 3, the Broncs were able to fight off a frantic rally by the Bobcats in the final minutes to seal a 60-57 win. It was a game in which Rider seemed to try exceptionally hard to give the lead away, but ninth-seeded Quinnipiac simply did not take advantage.
Junior guard Jimmie Taylor, though quiet for much of the season, went off in the contest for 18 points, shooting 5 for 6 from beyond the arc.
Junior center Kahlil Thomas picked up his 12th and final double-double of the season, knocking down 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Graduate guard Teddy Okereafor was notably ineffective throughout the game, even missing two key free-throws in the final minute that could have sealed the deal for the Broncs. However, he still managed to pick up the play of the game.
With 14 seconds left and the Rider lead cut to just one point, Quinnipiac had the ball for a chance to steal the season away from the Broncs. On the inbound pass, Okereafor stole the ball, dribbled up the court and was fouled. He then knocked down both shots to preserve the win.
“We just did our best to keep our composure,” Okereafor said. “We knew we needed to get stops, and I was in the right place at the right time and managed to get a big steal and make two big free throws.”
The emotional win, however, did not yield enough momentum for Rider to upset Monmouth on March 4.
Just hours before the game’s 7 p.m. tip, three Hawks were honored with the conference’s most prestigious awards. Junior guard Justin Robinson received Player of the Year, freshman guard Micah Seaborn earned MAAC Rookie of the Year and Monmouth’s head coach, King Rice, earned Coach of the Year. These three helped the team to a program-best 25 regular season wins.
The Broncs were able to jump out to a quick 6-2 lead, but the Hawks responded with a 12-0 run and the game never shifted again.
There was nothing pretty about the win for Monmouth, though. Rider actually shot the ball better — 34 percent from the field to the Hawks’ 31 percent.
Turnovers, which have plagued the Broncs all year, made the difference. Rider turned the ball over 21 times, allowing for a season-low 48 total points scored.
Thomas stressed that Monmouth really wasn’t doing anything exceptional to cause the plethora of turnovers.
“They were all self-inflicted,” he said. “It was not anything that Monmouth was doing. It was what we were doing wrong that was causing them.”
Though Robinson was terrible from the field, shooting 1 for 12, he registered a MAAC Tournament record eight steals.
Seaborn led the way for the Hawks, dropping 14 points. He also hit a pair of threes that sucked the life out of Rider when it threatened to make a run.
Thomas said his team was focused on keeping Monmouth’s stars in check.
“We really wanted to pick up our defensive intensity,” he said. “One of the things we talked about was taking multiple shots in a row and keeping the ball out of their hands.”
Junior forward Xavier Lundy provided a spark for the Broncs in the second half and was key in closing a once 22-point deficit to only 45-39. He finished with 14 points.
The 11-point loss will be the final collegiate game for Okereafor and senior guards Khalil Alford, Zedric Sadler and Shawn Valentine.
With this chapter of his basketball career over, Okereafor acknowledged how much he’ll miss donning the cranberry and white.
“I always loved the atmosphere in Alumni Gym and I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to play here,” he said. “I think this program is only going to get stronger. We’ve got some good young guys coming in and with the way Kahlil [Thomas] played this year, I expect an even bigger season from him next year.”
Rider finishes the 2015-16 season at 13-20 overall, its first 20-loss year since 2005-06.
In the MAAC Tournament Final on March 7, second-seeded Iona came from behind in the second half to knock off Monmouth, 79-76. The Hawks will wait for Selection Sunday to find out their fate for a postseason tournament.