By Jake Tiger
After a pair of clutch free throws from senior guard Dwight Murray Jr., Rider men’s basketball trailed Niagara 62-61 and was on the brink of overcoming a second half deficit of 11 points.
Niagara began dribbling the ball up with just over a minute left to play, and the raucous Rider faithful bellowed, “Defense! Defense!”
With Niagara up by one and in possession of the ball, senior forward Mervin James knew a play had to be made, and he knew the Purple Eagles were looking for a three-pointer: the shot that had been killing the Broncs all game.
“When [Niagara’s point guard] came off the screen, I know he can’t really make plays for real, so I saw his eyes go straight to the corner,” said James. “I just read it, and then just made a play on the ball.”
James jumped the swing pass like a shutdown cornerback, catching it with outstretched arms along the sideline and taking it to the house. Niagara was forced to quickly foul James rather than give up the easy bucket in transition.
With 57 seconds remaining, James sank both shots at the line to give Rider a lead it would not relinquish.
James finished with 17 points and eight rebounds in Rider’s 65-62 comeback over Niagara on Jan. 20. While James shined individually, it was an all-around display of heart by a squad of Broncs that has found an extra gear as of late.
“Basically, we need to stop coming out slow,” said James. “But this year, the team just showed me that once we just stick together, we could come back from anything.”
The gritty win came five days after a similar 18-point resurgence over Iona, and like its previous game, Rider struggled defensively for much of the night, allowing Niagara to hit threes at a 59.1% clip.
“We gave them 13-for-22 on threes, and that’s what kept them in the game,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “They’re a tough team, but we got tougher.”
The Purple Eagles led by as much as 11 with about 17 minutes to play, but an adjustment to the game plan slowly turned the tide back in Rider’s favor.
Niagara guard Noah Thomasson, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s (MAAC) second-highest scorer, was a major defensive focus for Baggett coming in, but giving him excess attention only created easier shots for his teammates.
“We started to make the adjustment on Thomasson, and at times, we were doubling him,” said Baggett of the team’s strategy early on. “Then at some point, I was like, ‘Let’s not double. Let’s stop leaving guys open.’ Sometimes we spend so much time focused on him, and he’s an unselfish player and he finds the open guys.”
With Niagara’s biggest strength hindered, the door opened for Rider to weasel its way back into the game, primarily with methodical trips to the line. The Broncs made 18 of their 24 foul shots in the game, with 16 of those attempts coming in the second half.
“They kind of came out, they got after us a little bit and we were on our heels,” said Baggett. “Then we just started taking our time … executing our offense and then we started getting stops.”
Adding another crucial victory, Rider moves to 5-3 in conference play, knotting them with Quinnipiac in third place.
The Broncs look to continue their climb on Jan. 22, hosting Manhattan for the teams’ first meeting of the season. The game begins at 2 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN+.