By Jake Tiger
Rider women’s basketball’s trip to Dublin showcased both its strengths and weaknesses, as the 2-3 Broncs continued to weigh down their hot shooting with inconsistent, sloppy defense.
Rider put together a well-rounded, 76-67 win against North Florida on Nov. 18, before Eastern Kentucky sent the Broncs home on Nov. 19 with a 85-64 blowout loss.
The Broncs were seeing green in Dublin, putting together one of their best offensive stretches in recent memory. Collectively, they shot 41.5% from three, and a season-high 76 points in their win against North Florida.
“I thought we did some really good stuff on the offensive end,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan. “When you have veteran guards … they can have a kind of feel for a game and when you know you need a big bucket, and I felt we did that.”
In all of last season, the Broncs could only eclipse the 70-point mark three times in 30 games, but this season, they’ve already done it twice in five games.
“We’re shooting the ball well,” said Milligan. “I think overall, offensively, we’re in a pretty good place for five games in the season.”
Junior forward Makayla Firebaugh has particularly found her groove after a sophomore slump. As Rider’s top scoring option, she is averaging a career-high 16.6 points and shooting 42.9% from beyond the arc on extremely high volume. The long-range specialist is fifth in the country in three-pointers made per game with 3.6, and of 86 players with at least 40 three-point attempts, Firebaugh ranks 12th in efficiency.
“Honestly, I don’t really think,” said Firebaugh. “I just shoot and just kind of feel my shot when I’m open. … It just felt like it was there.”
Firebaugh continued to roll overseas, riding the momentum of her game-winning three against St. Francis Brooklyn on Nov. 13. In Ireland, the junior scored 42 total points and hit 11 of her 20 three-point attempts, and dropped 25 points in the 76-point win over North Florida.
Upon returning home, Firebaugh was greeted with Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) player of the week honors for her success in Ireland, receiving the award for the second time in her career.
“I wanted to show Dublin what Rider’s about, how we can play,” said Firebaugh.
However, Firebaugh’s heroics on offense could not compensate for a slew of defensive blunders.
Stumblin’ in Dublin
Despite an inability to be consistently two-dimensional, the Rider defense still found ways to look flat, and at times, clearly lacking depth.
Out of 349 NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams, the Broncs are 326th in opponent field goal percentage with an average of 45.9%.
“I think, defensively, we are not [in a good place],” said Milligan. “We’ve got to get better.”
Rider was on the wrong side of the turnover battle in both games, ultimately coming home with a differential of -16 across both games. In its second game in particular, Rider committed 21 turnovers, while Eastern Kentucky finished with seven.
Among all Division I women’s basketball teams, Rider ranks 315th in turnover margin.
“We just had too many turnovers, too many fouls, gave up too many boards,” said Milligan. “Just a lot of things that are not really a good formula for success.”
On the defensive end, the Broncs continued to let the ball escape them, as the Colonels commanded the boards en route to 15 offensive rebounds. Rider was left picking at table scraps, tallying only four.
The abundance of extra possessions created by turnovers and offensive rebounds allowed the Colonels to put up 18 more shots and 14 more free throws than the Broncs, granting Eastern Kentucky the win despite lower shooting efficiency across the board.
“We just have to get better, and by better, a lot of times it just means consistent,” said Milligan.
The game was emblematic of Rider’s entire season thus far, with great offensive performances often being overshadowed by repeated defensive breakdowns.
The Broncs have had a knack for fouling under the basket and giving their foes free points. In Dublin, Rider committed 41 personal fouls which handed 47 free throws to opponents.
“[Fouling] has been something that has plagued us,” said Milligan. “… Playing defense for 25 seconds and then the outcomes, or playing defense for 25 seconds and then giving up that [offensive] board. … That’s just being disciplined with our defensive fundamentals for the entire possession, and just recognizing that one little misstep on a fundamental can really, really mess us up as a whole.”
Between transfers and players returning from long-term injuries, key defensive pieces like senior guard Maya Hyacienth and junior forward Toni Blanford are sharing the court for the first time, so some growing pains are to be expected.
Rider has also been without senior forward Anna Ekerstedt this season, who was first on the team in blocks and fifth in points a year ago. After the game against Eastern Kentucky, Milligan stated that Ekerstedt was day-to-day, and should be returning soon.
Now with 11 days of rest and recalculation, the Broncs return to Alumni Gym on Nov. 30 to test their defense against the 2-5 Lehigh Mountain Hawks, who have two players averaging 18.7 points per game. The game begins at 5:00 p.m.