By Shaun Chornobroff
The Rider men’s basketball team finally got to play in Alumni Gym for the first time this season when they faced Iona in a weekend double-header on Dec. 18 and 19., but left the weekend winless, dropping both of its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) games to Iona’s veteran-laden team and Hall of Fame head coach.
Rider was probably happy that it’s season opener included an empty crowd as the Iona Gaels embarrassed the Broncs, handing them a 70-56 defeat.
Sophomore guard Christian Ings gave Rider a 2-0 lead on the game’s first possession. It was the last lead Rider had in the game, as the Gaels scored the next seven points and never allowed Rider back in front.
The Broncs went into the half trailing 35-27, but they were lucky the score was that close considering they allowed 17 first half points to Nelly Junior Joseph. Head Coach Kevin Baggett was adamant after the game that the Broncs needed to be tougher in guarding the freshman forward.
“That’s all it was, our post guys didn’t establish any presence in there and we let this young man get off,” Baggett said. “He’s going to be a good player, but he’s only a freshman right now, I’m playing with upper classmen that shouldn’t allow that to happen.”
One of Baggett’s “post guys” junior center Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson was critical of himself after the game.
“It’s just heart to be honest, it’s just heart and pride,” Ogemuno-Johnson said of his first half struggles. “We came out slow, he got a lot of points in the beginning, I think he only got two in the second half, that should not be the case in the first half.”
Ogemuno-Johnson led Rider in scoring with 16 points, 10 of them came in an improved second half performance.
“It’s supposed to be from the beginning, in the second half I did a little bit better, but not enough. Right from the start tomorrow, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Ogemuno-Johnson said.
Rider’s strength has come from its backcourt early in the season, but it was kept silent during the loss.
Graduate transfer Rodney Henderson Jr., seemed ready to carry the offense with 13 first half points, but was held scoreless in the last half of play.
Rider’s point guard duo of Ings and junior Dwight Murray Jr., who has been the team’s most dominant player in the early season, combined for 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting.
It was an uncharacteristically rough performance for Rider’s guards.
When asked if there were any positives to take away from the game, the only idea Baggett mustered was “we came out healthy.”
An upset effort came up short for the Broncs in a 72-64 dogfight that Rider ended up on the losing side of.
For the second straight night the Broncs went into the halftime break trailing, however the 39-32 deficit Rider faced this time felt much more manageable than the 35-27 one the night before.
Rider had clawed back into the game multiple times in the first half and found themselves at the line consistently, Murray found his scoring touch again and Rider was winning the rebounding battle, but the team was struggling on three-point attempts.
Rider shot 11.1% from beyond the arc in the game, meanwhile Iona, which shot 30.5% from three heading into the matchup, made 47.8% of its three pointers.
“Those guys made a ton of three and we’re scoring two’s, that’s hard, it’s tough on us,” Baggett said in his postgame press conference. “You really got to execute every time down if they’re making threes and we’re making two’s.”
The Broncs started the second half hot, forcing Iona into four fouls and three turnovers, and finally found consistent scoring in the half’s opening minutes.
Junior Jeremiah Pope made the Broncs lone three-pointer with 16:08 left in the second half to cut the deficit to 44-42. Not long after Ings drove the baseline and tied the game at 44.
Junior Dontrell McQuarter, who led the Broncs in scoring with 20 points gave his team a 48-44 lead scoring two consecutive baskets, but the Gaels quickly grabbed the lead back.
“I want to see us execute better when we have the lead, we need to make those guys chase us a little more,” Baggett said. “We needed to be a little more patient on the offensive end to have those guys guard us throughout the shot clock, instead we’re running up, trying to rush when we should have been taking our time.”
After Iona took back a 49-48 lead with 12:18 left both teams traded baskets for minutes on end, but two clutch threes from Isaiah Ross turned the tide of the game and buried the Broncs. The senior preseason second-team All-MAAC selection scored 25 points on the night and made five of his six three-point attempts.
“Those guys have experience, they hit big shots, I expect seniors to hit big shots like that, so give those guys credit for making some tough shots,” Baggett said after the game.
Rider came into the weekend series underdogs and while it may leave the series with a dismal record of 1-3 in MAAC play, pushing a team of Iona’s caliber to its limit may have value.
“We can compete with anybody, playing Manhattan and Iona, it’s not really that big of a difference,” McQuarter said after the game. “It’s on us, everything we do, it starts with us… we beat ourselves. When we play hard and buy into what coach is saying we can beat anybody.”
Rider will attempt to break its three-game losing skid and get its first home win of the season on Dec. 23 at 7 p.m. against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).