Lopez leads Broncs to new heights
By Thomas Albano
After two intense home games that went into overtime, the men’s basketball team defeated Fairfield on Feb. 5 and defending MAAC champion Manhattan on Feb. 8 to gain sole possession of second place in the conference.
The Broncs (16-9, 10-4 MAAC) tried to get an upper hand in the first half against the struggling Stags (6-17, 4-9 MAAC), though not that many points were scored. In fact, the whole game did not see either team lead by double digits. Rider’s largest lead margin of the game was 9 with five minutes remaining in the half. The half came to a close with the Broncs ahead 20-13.
Senior center Matt Lopez was already on his way to a double-double, scoring 10 points and collecting 8 rebounds in the first half. Rider did, however, show some signs of struggle by managing to go only 1 for 9 in 3-point shots and 1 for 3 in free throws. The Stags did not have any free throw attempts in the first 20 minutes, but scored 9 out of their 13 first-half points from beyond the arc.
The second half began with another slow-paced, back-and-forth battle for the lead, but Fairfield began to get the upper hand and cut Rider’s lead down to 2 after six minutes, thanks in part to two 3-pointers by Stags’ junior forward Marcus Gilbert.
Then things started to fall apart for the Broncs. They committed four turnovers in approximately five minutes and went only 6 for 11 from the charity stripe in the half. This resulted in Fairfield’s eventually taking the lead. The Broncs were behind by 7 with 4:04 left to play, but they would not back down. They ended up going on a 7-0 run in the final minutes of regulation to send the game into overtime.
The five-minute overtime period saw Rider struggle even more to keep control and to make free throws, as the team was 4 for 8 in overtime with 10 seconds left.
It was at that point that arguably the biggest moment of the game occurred. After Gilbert stole the ball from graduate guard Anthony D’Orazio, players went to the ground and a Fairfield player called a timeout to prevent a jump ball. The only problem was Fairfield did not have a timeout to use. This resulted in a technical foul being issued, and junior guard Teddy Okereafor sinking both free throws to seal the 54-52 victory.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett was pleased with the outcome, but had some sympathy for Fairfield’s situation at the end.
“I’m certainly happy that we won the game,” Baggett said. “I feel bad for the young man that called the timeout. That’s a tough situation to be in.”
Baggett did not, however, attempt to hide any of the problems that the Broncs had during the game.
“At the end of the day these free throws are going to cost us eventually,” Baggett said. “And that is what’s scaring me the most.”
When Rider hosted Manhattan (12-11, 9-5 MAAC) in the battle for second place, the Broncs wasted little time in getting out to a commanding lead. At the first media timeout, 9:45 into the game, they were already leading 25-12.
The Jaspers, however, woke up and went on a 7-2 run before the next media timeout in an attempt to close the lead. The Broncs’ free throw trouble returned as they managed only two successful free throws in 11 attempts. This included Okereafor missing both free throws earned on a technical foul by the Manhattan head coach. At the end of the first half, the game was tied at 37.
The first portion of the second half was all Manhattan, which managed to get a 10-point lead with 11:27 to go. But once sophomore guard Jimmie Taylor sank a 3-pointer at the halfway point, it was yet another back-and-forth battle. With 17 seconds left in the game and the team trailing by 2, Okereafor was fouled and earned another shot at the free-throw line. He hit both, and overtime started in Alumni Gym again. This was the third time the Broncs played an overtime period this year, the first also coming against the Jaspers.
Baggett said he does not mind when the team has to play overtime because it’s an exciting feeling and it’s one of the times he feels his team is the most composed.
“It doesn’t get any better than that if you’re a competitor and a true fan of basketball,” he said. “That’s what I am, that’s what [my players] are. We’re passionate about what we do.”
When it came to free throws in the overtime period, Rider shined. The team managed to go 8 for 13 from the charity stripe in the five minutes, while Manhattan went only 1 for 6. The Broncs went on to win 85-77, gaining sole possession of second place in the MAAC.
Baggett gave some credit to the fans.
“[They] were awesome,” Baggett said. “They did a really good job of rooting guys on, and when guys were shooting free throws from Manhattan, they did a good job of yelling. They were definitely the sixth man today.”
Taylor finished the game with 13 points and four rebounds, and Okereafor finished with 16 points and five rebounds. Lopez had yet another noteworthy game, earning his second double-double in two games with 27 points, 10 rebounds and going 7 for 9 in free throws. This is Lopez’s eighth double-double this season.
Lopez, a transfer from Utah State, felt the Manhattan defense had not changed since the game a few weeks ago, including strong play by their junior forward Ashton Pankey.
“They seemed to have a similar approach since the last time we saw them,” Lopez said. “It’s all just competitive. I respect [Pankey’s] game.”
Lopez’s play not only earned him MAAC Player of the Week awards, but Baggett also feels he could be a nominee for MAAC Player of the Year.
“He’s been the MVP of this team, that’s for sure,” Baggett said. “Look what we’re doing with him. I wish I had him another four more years.”
The team will now travel to upstate New York to battle with Canisius and Niagara. With six games left in the season, Baggett wants to focus and make sure nothing happens like last season, when the team went 1-7 down the stretch.
“It’s one game at a time,” Baggett said. “We can’t have any slip-ups. Everyone is important now. This is jockeying for position and I just want this to be an awesome year.”