By Austin Ferguson
Mirroring its most recent road trip, a pair of Broncs’ losses marked trouble for the men’s basketball team as the season is approaching its end.
After its losses, Rider is at risk of losing its first-round bye in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament, now just 1.5 games ahead of the sixth seed.
Rider at Iona, Feb. 21
Rider’s trip to Iona on Feb. 21 started on a promising note with the Broncs holding on to a slim advantage through the first 10 minutes. The run was highlighted by four early points from sophomore forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson and three from senior center Tyere Marshall.
A pair of threes from Iona guard Isaiah Ross, supplemented by a jumper from Gaels forward E.J. Crawford, pushed Iona ahead 15-12 and erased the early Rider lead.
After a 3-point play from Iona forward Tajuan Agee extended the Gaels’ lead to four, redshirt sophomore guard Tyrei Randall made a 3-pointer to bring the score back within one.
Iona dominated from that point until there were less than four minutes left in the half, culminating in another 3-point play from Agee that put the Gaels ahead by nine. Marshall, senior guard Stevie Jordan and redshirt junior forward Frederick Scott made a quick six-point swing to bring the score to 30-27 with under two minutes to go.
Both teams went back and forth, though Iona was able to reclaim a five-point lead into halftime with a layup from Agee at the buzzer.
The trio of Agee, Ross and Crawford were accountable for all but three of Iona’s first-half points, scoring a combined 31 points in the first period. Agee led all scorers with 13 points.
On Rider’s side of the ball, Jordan led all Broncs with seven points, closely followed by Marshall with five. Scott, Ogemuno-Johnson and redshirt junior forward Dimencio Vaughn finished the half with four points.
With Iona leading 34-29, both squads went back-and-forth at the onset of the second half, though Rider was able to chip away and tie the game with a Jordan 3-pointer.
Both teams continued to push back on offense, with the Broncs tying the game on multiple occasions. Iona eventually re-established control and with 13:19 left to go, Crawford drilled a 3-pointer to put Iona up 48-40.
Down eight, Vaughn and Marshall grinded the Gaels lead down until another Jordan 3-pointer brought Rider within one point of tying the game again.
Iona was able to hold on to either a tie game or a small lead until the 3:21 mark in the second half when a Scott jumper gave the Broncs their first lead since the 10:26 point of the first half.
Rider held on strong, even extending its lead to five from a Marshall free throw with just 37 seconds to go. The Broncs were in a strong position to avenge their home loss against Iona.
Or so it seemed.
After a pair of free throws from Crawford brought the score to 68-65 to Rider’s advantage, Randall split a trip at the line to extend the lead to four with 28 seconds left. Seven seconds later, Iona guard Isaiah Washington made a layup to make it a two-point game.
Randall was sent to the free-throw line again with 20 seconds to go with a chance to make it a two-possession game.
Randall missed both free throws.
With 13 seconds to go, Ross took advantage of the Broncs’ woes from the charity stripe and nailed a three, pushing the Gaels ahead, 70-69. Jordan would put up a shot at the buzzer, but it was no good as Rider dropped another heartbreaker to Iona.
The Broncs shot just 9-21 from the free-throw line, surely accounting for what could have been a close but decisive win for Rider.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot,” Head Coach Kevin Baggett said. “We cost ourselves the game. We’ve got to make free throws. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to do what we’re asking you to do, not what you want to do.”
Rider at Saint Peter’s, Feb. 23
Frustrated over the loss, Rider looked to move on with another road matchup, this time against first-place Saint Peter’s on Feb. 23.
Rider, however, fell flat again in a blowout loss.
“A lot of breakdowns. Giving up threes and not guarding it the right way,” Baggett said. “Disappointing performance all the way around. We started off good. But too many turnovers.”
The Broncs started off strong with an 8-0 run but were immediately answered by a Saint Peter’s 18-1 run. Rider fought back and brought the Peacocks’ lead down to 3, but Saint Peter’s held steady to bring a 31-24 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Rider lowered the lead to as little as two in the second half but an unconscious run where Saint Peter’s guard Doug Edert scored 19 of Saint Peter’s 21 points in a 21-6 run rocketed the Peacocks to a 14-point lead.
Saint Peter’s cruised to the finish line, leading by as many as 20 points and winning 73-54.
Edert’s offensive explosion contributed to his 28-point effort, a career-high for the freshman.
Despite the tough loss, Vaughn still shelled out a great performance, scoring 24 points and tallying eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks.
Vaughn expressed his frustration after the loss to Saint Peter’s.
“[ I ] just keep reminding them that you’ve got to play hard, stop quitting, just play through it,” Vaughn said. “I know where I’m at right now. I’m tired of losing. [That’s] two games we should have won.”
Though the Broncs’ weekend appeared to be a complete disaster, Rider is far from out of the MAAC’s upper echelon. Rider is three games behind Saint Peter’s for first place and sits fourth in the standings, just a game and a half behind in-state rival Monmouth.
In second place is a resurging Siena team that, along with Saint Peter’s, has won its last five games.
Right behind the Broncs in the standings are Iona, Quinnipiac, Manhattan, Fairfield and Niagara. Iona is just one-half game behind Rider and 3.5 games behind Saint Peter’s, while Quinnipiac, Manhattan, Fairfield and Niagara sit in a four-way tie for sixth place and are 4.5 games behind the Peacocks.
The schedule ahead
Rider has just three games left in its regular-season, two of which are taking place at home.
The Broncs return to Lawrenceville, New Jersey to take on Monmouth on Feb. 28. The game will be broadcasted live on ESPNU, meaning tip-off will be at 9 p.m., as opposed to the usual 7 p.m. start.
Rider heads to Connecticut on March 1 for its final road game of the season against eighth-place Fairfield, tipping off at 2 p.m.
The Broncs’ final regular-season game will take place on March 4 for a rare Wednesday matchup with Manhattan at 7 p.m.
At best, Rider can move up to second in the MAAC at the season’s end. At worst, the Broncs could lose their first-round bye in the MAAC tournament and enter it in ninth place.