By Jake Tiger
A brilliant white banner now hangs as a permanent fixture in Alumni Gym next to the likes of Rider legends ‘93 Darrick Suber and ‘08 Jason Thompson, with the No. 4 jersey of ‘20 Stella Johnson becoming the first-ever to be retired in Rider women’s basketball history on Nov. 7.
“This was something that had to be done,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan. “There was no question that Stella’s number needed to be hanging in the rafters here. This program is built on heart and soul, and Stella exemplifies that every single day.”
Taking place before Rider’s 68-60 season-opening loss to NJIT, the ceremony celebrated the illustrious career of the program’s most decorated athlete.
Johnson’s crowning achievement as a Bronc was her 2019-20 season, in which she led the Broncs to their first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) regular season championship by leading the nation in scoring with 24.8 points per game. After COVID-19 unexpectedly canceled that year’s postseason, top-seeded Rider was deemed the MAAC Champion for the first time in program history.
Johnson left Rider women’s basketball as its all-time leading scorer with 2,167 points, shattering ‘94 Debbie Snyder’s prior record by 451 points.
“When you get to an arena, you see players up there all the time, but I never thought I would see mine,” said Johnson after the ceremony. “I don’t think I really processed it until I actually walked out. … I was very emotional… seeing everybody in the stands.”
On April 17, 2020, the Phoenix Mercury drafted Johnson 29th overall in the WNBA Draft, making her the first player in program history to reach the pinnacle of professional women’s basketball.
Across two seasons, Johnson played in 15 WNBA games, including a 25-point performance with the Washington Mystics. Now, she plans to continue her professional career overseas with hopes of one day rejoining the WNBA.
“Stella’s a professional,” said Milligan. “She’s gonna be back in the [WNBA] because she does the little things that I think a lot of teams want, so we’ll see her there again.”
It was important for Milligan and the Broncs to cap Johnson’s special night with a win in their first regular season game, but perhaps those jitters got the best of them, as they fell to the NJIT Highlanders 68-60 for the first time in nearly a decade.
“We didn’t hold up our end of the bargain,” said Milligan. “We don’t want to lose in front of our home fans. We wanted to win for Stella tonight. … We just didn’t get it done.”
Rider quickly fell behind in the opening quarter, NJIT already claiming a 19-13 lead by controlling the paint and setting an imposing, physical tone for the rest of the game.
“I just don’t think we were, overall, ready for the physicality that they brought to the game,” said graduate student guard Amanda Mobley. “We weren’t ready to combat that and play as hard as we should have.”
NJIT led by as much as 18 in the third quarter, but slowly, the Broncs chipped away at the deficit, using superb play on both ends to spark a 15-2 and eventually cut the lead down to six late in the fourth.
In the fourth quarter, Rider shot 41% from the field, while the defense held the Highlanders to a measley 25%.
This was a completely different team.
“It was just an emotional shift,” said senior center Victoria Toomey. “We came into this game knowing what we needed to do, we just didn’t do it from the jump. … If we start that way, it’s a completely different game.”
But Rider’s comeback effort proved to be too little, too late, and the Highlanders held on for a well-deserved 68-60 win on one of the most important nights in Rider women’s basketball history.
“When push came to shove, we just made too many mistakes tonight,” said Milligan. “That was one of 30 and we got 29 more chances to get this right, and we will.”
Before they head to Ireland for the MAAC/Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN) Dublin Basketball Challenge, the Broncs will undertake a less strenuous road trip, visiting Drexel on Nov. 10 and St. Francis Brooklyn on Nov. 13 in search of their first win.