By Carolo Pascale
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – It’s over. The curse has finally been broken.
Rider men’s basketball has done what was once thought impossible, breaking its 11-year quarterfinal round drought by defeating the No. 1 seed Iona Gaels 71-70 on March 9.
Senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. nailed the game-winning shot with 7.7 seconds left to send the Broncs to the semifinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament for the first time since March 5, 2011.
“First of all, thank God because I don’t have to answer not getting past a quarterfinal ever again,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett, in his 10th-year at the helm of the program. “I appreciate them all for all their efforts and all the hard work. We had to find a way and we had to grind it.”
Similar to the opening round game against Manhattan, one of the Broncs’ linchpins opened the scoring, this time junior forward Mervin James. The Broncs came out with a lot of speed and aggression after the bucket from James, which included a tone-setting dunk from senior forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson.
Rebounds were a principal factor in the early part of the game, and the Broncs were able to draw numerous fouls competing on the glass.
The defense showed up for the Broncs early in the game as well, forcing the Gaels into double coverage situations, but Iona was still able to keep up point-for-point with Rider inside the first six minutes.
Afterward, Iona jumped out to a strong eight-point lead, but Rider responded, as James was again able to spark the offense with a big dunk at 8:28 of the first half.
Despite both teams playing a shot-for-shot, foul trouble was striking the Broncs as graduate student forward Dimencio Vaughn had three fouls in just eight minutes on the court. Luckily for the Broncs, the Gaels were having a rough day at the line, missing several free throws that hampered their chances to push ahead.
The final two minutes of the first half were back and forth, just like the rest of the half. Murray. hit a nice jumper at 1:07 to tie the game at 26. As time expired in the first, Iona’s Nelly Jr. Joseph slammed down a dunk to give the Gaels a 30-28 lead going into halftime.
Vaughn and junior guard Allen Powell each scored six points to lead the Broncs at the end of the half.
Going into the second half, the Broncs aspired for a strong start, but Iona’s stout full court press defense was a tough obstacle to beat.
“We just were trying to give our guards some relief by having the post guy come back and help,” said Baggett, “We were just trying to get big in the backcourt to help offset some of the pressure on our guards.”
One player for the Broncs who really stepped up early in the second half was Murray. He was able to take control of the Rider offense, scoring points and dishing out good passes.
After about seven minutes of the second half, the Gaels held a 39-38 lead, but for a third time, James catalyzed the Broncs offense to go on a 10-2 run off of a massive layup that granted the Broncs a small lead.
As the clock ticked down, it was increasingly evident it was going to come down to the wire, and all of the Broncs shined in the final ten minutes. It was clutch play after clutch play that helped the Broncs stay in the game.
It all started off a dime of a pass from Powell to Ogemuno-Johnson around the 10-minute mark that tied the game at 49, and then James hit a crucial three to once again tie the game at 8:40.
The Gaels pushed back hard, with Iona’s Dylan van Eyck throwing down a dunk at 5:27, and with 2:58 left, Iona’s Elijah Joiner knocked down a high looping three to push Iona’s lead to five.
But the Broncs, having been in situations similar to this in the regular season, were not going to go down easy and let the game slip away this time.
“We’ve been in this position a lot. We’ve come on the losing end of it a lot this year,” said Baggett. “We kept saying we believe in this team. We believed all year long.”
The final two minutes of the game were a testament to the Broncs’ fortitude. Powell cut the lead to two with an incredible 3-pointer with 2:03 on the clock. Then at 1:11, James was fouled, went to the line and sank his first shot. He missed his second free-throw, but Vaughn was able to jump on the ball and grab the offensive rebound.
Then the improbable became reality with 7.7 seconds left. Murray got the ball inside the paint, got swarmed by two Gaels, and put up an off-balance prayer that swished through the net, and shocked everyone inside of Boardwalk Hall.
Murray’s shot was two things: the first being the dagger through the heart of the top-seeded Gaels, and the second being the shot that broke the quarterfinals curse that has been hanging over the Broncs for over a decade.
“First I want to say thank God,” said a smiling Murray. “Everybody’s been locked in since we got here. The quarterfinals was something that we wanted to do for a long time, but now we got to finish the whole thing.”
The Broncs closed out the final 7.7 seconds, defeating the tournament favorite Iona Gaels with a final of 71-70. Rider went on a 6-0 run to close out the game, with Murray being named Player of the Game with 21 points, 19 of which came in that second half.
“This wasn’t the end game for us just to win this game. The end game is for us to win the MAAC Tournament,” said a confident Baggett.
The Broncs now advance to the semifinal round of the MAAC Tournament for the first time in 11 years and will face off against the winner of No. 5 Niagara and No. 4 Monmouth. The semifinal game will take place at 6 p.m and will be televised on ESPNNews.