By Dylan Manfre
Rider women’s basketball started the season 0-5 for the second year in a row. The last time that record happened was in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons. The team’s struggles start at the top and trickle down the latter.
It has been difficult for the team that ended up in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) semifinals last March to find its footing. Rider’s recent stretch of games offered answers about what the team needs to do to improve after going 0-3 with losses to St. Francis Brooklyn, Lehigh and Columbia.
Still without a win
Rider’s game against St. Francis resulted in one team getting its first win, and it was not the Broncs. They lost their home opener 74-62 and Head Coach Lynn Milligan took full responsibility for the loss.
“Bottom line is I didn’t have my team ready,” Milligan said. “I’m gonna work to correct that … all of it’s on me. It starts at the top.”
At times during the game, it looked like Rider was not in sync with each other, especially when it was down as much as 20 points.
“I feel like we get within ourselves rather than reach out when we need help,” sophomore guard Makayla Firebaugh said. “I feel like that was probably a big contributor.”
The first half followed an unattractive pattern that the Broncs saw against Penn State and La Salle. They quickly faced a double-digit deficit down 18-6 after 10 minutes and Rider’s bench played an average of five minutes in the quarter without producing a bucket.
“We didn’t come out with energy, and that’s been our problem for the past few games,” Firebaugh said.
Rider corrected some of its bad play in the first half against Lehigh and kept it competitive, however it faltered the rest of the way and ended up losing by 25.
Columbia seemed to be the game when the Broncs found a lot of its footing. Firebaugh tied her career-high of 26, Rider led a majority of the way but could not pull out the win losing 63-60, its closest deficit all year.
Rider’s small-ball options
The Broncs played some small-ball lineups probably out of necessity on Nov. 20 against St. Francis Brooklyn. After sophomore forward Raphaela Toussaint got two fouls in three minutes in the quarter, she was held out until the start of the third period.
Milligan made some adjustments playing the 6-foot-2 forward Anna Ekerstedt at center. She shared the court with freshman forward Emily Strunk, junior guard Jessika Schiffer, senior guard Lenaejha Evans running point guard along with Firebaugh. It gave the impression that Milligan made the change out of necessity.
“We saw an opportunity to put it out there [against St. Francis] to see what it looked like,” Milligan said. “I do think it’s something we can play around with. Like I said, because of our depth, if we can stay healthy, we have a lot of options to play different kids together and get different looks.”
Against Lehigh, Milligan made an official change to the starting five, and it was a pretty big one. Senior guard Amanda Mobley was replaced with Evans and sophomore guard Maya Hyacienth was swapped with Schiffer.
Hyacinth did not play against Lehigh because of a hyperextended knee, according to Milligan.
Guard depth now a concern?
That is a sizable “if” when Milligan said, “if we can stay healthy.” The Broncs have been pretty banged up and the guard depth Milligan touted at the beginning of the season has become a concern.
The list goes as follows: junior guard Sophia DeMauro was not present for the St. Francis game because of recent ankle surgery and is out indefinitely. Freshman Madison Johnson is still on crutches with a left leg injury. Sophomore guard Molly Lynch rode around Alumni Gym on a scooter on Nov. 20 with a right foot sprain. Milligan said she is now on crutches. Mobley was seen in a walking boot but Milligan said it’s more of a “precautionary” measure so she can feel comfortable around campus. She does not anticipate it limiting her in any way.
The pesky injury bug almost “never went away,” Milligan said. It has been lingering around the team for the whole season.
“It happens sometimes,” Milligan said. “Every team faces it. Injuries are not new to us and they’re not new to anybody else. It’s part of the game.”
Against Lehigh on Nov. 27, Rider used nine active players. That went down to eight when Rider played Columbia on Nov. 28.
“It makes it easier [to make lineups,]” Milligan laughed after the Lehigh game. “I’m choosing from nine players and not 15.”
Redshirt sophomore guard Lauren Saa has played six games in her three years at Rider because of knee injuries and surgeries. Milligan said Saa feels “confident” and is close to a return.
These injuries put more emphasis on the role players to perform better, especially since one player scored in double-digits in each of the first two games. Evans has stepped up big for the Broncs and now will likely be a regular starter.
Now that Rider has a little footing, still no win, it enters a period of three games in eight days. It will host NJIT on Dec. 1 and travel to face Army and Wagner on Dec. 4 and 7 respectively.