By Carolo Pascale
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Rider men’s basketball was dealt a royal flush as all five starters netted double-digit points in its opening-round, 79-67 win against Manhattan at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament on March 8.
“I’m proud of my guys; I’m proud of everybody that’s on our team,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “To come back and play as well as we did is continuing to show growth on this team as the year goes on.”
The first half started exceptionally well for the Broncs. Netting the first points of the game was senior forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson, who put on some nice moves to get the Broncs rolling early.
That first basket seemed to give the Broncs a big boost, going to work on both sides of the ball by getting steals and using their size in the paint to score.
One thing that helped the Broncs early on was quick bench usage by Baggett and making good use of their fast breaks and size. The Broncs, while undersized compared to most of the conference, actually matched up fairly well to the Jaspers. This helped the Broncs a lot in the first half especially, when it came to rebounding.
All of this combined to help Rider jump out to a quick 15 point lead.
But just as it seemed like all was going well for the Broncs, Manhattan turned right back around with a dunk to shift the tone of the game. After this, the Jaspers pushed hard to take a one-point lead with 8:47 remaining. The Broncs took it back right after, but the game had changed for both teams.
Only a minute later, junior forward Mervin James got up for a massive block at the rim, nearly sending the ball back to Manhattan.
Both teams went back and forth for the rest of the half until the Broncs jumped out to a three-point lead with three minutes left.
And with just 18 seconds left, Manhattan’s Jose Perez received a technical foul when he attempted to guard Broncs junior guard Allen Powell. Perez received the technical for throwing a water bottle on the floor after the play, being very unhappy with the call.
By the end of the half, the Broncs held a 42-36 lead. James led the Broncs with 13 points, while Ogemuno-Johnson had eight. Rider shot a solid 46.7% from the field and an excellent 55.6% from the three. The Broncs also had six steals in just that half.
“We went back to practice and could emphasize being dogs, playing hard, so that’s what we did as a team tonight,” said Ogemuno-Johnson. “We needed this one.”
The second half saw Manhattan open up the scoring with a deep three, but once again Ogemuno-Johnson put on the moves in the paint, netting another two points for the Broncs. That basket once again started a nice run for Rider, going 8-0 over a 1:43.
The defense continued to work in the second, forcing more turnovers and steals that helped send graduate student forward Dimencio Vaughn down the court for a rim-rattling solo dunk, bringing the Rider fans in attendance to their feet.
“Dimencio played unbelievable,” said Baggett. “You know that was one of the best games I’ve seen him play all year long.”
Once Rider got out to a 10-point lead in the second half, it never let it up, increasing to as much as 16. Ogemuno-Johnson forged ahead to 16 on a big lay-in that gave the Broncs substantial momentum going into the final seven minutes.
As time continued to expire, the Broncs started to clamp down on defense. The rebounding on the defensive side of the ball was imperative to the success of the Broncs in that second half, notching 13 defensive rebounds. That total nearly matched the Broncs first-half total of an even better 16.
“We had to box out,” said Ogemuno-Johnson. “We had to make adjustments because a lot of the games that we lost were just little stuff, and if we call that out, we win games.”
As the final buzzer sounded, the Broncs had won with a final score of 79-67, securing their spot in the quarterfinal round of the MAAC Tournament. The final scoresheet read like a New York Times bestseller: it was fantastic from front to back.
Vaughn led the Broncs with 20 points, Powell had 16, James had 16 and Ogemuno-Johnson finished with a double-double that included 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“These guys set the tempo; they were ready to go, they were hungry,” said Baggett. “You know it was chippy down there with things going on […] there’s no time for that. We just try and keep our heads and play, and if we keep our composure, as Ajiri said, if we can do that, we know we can beat anybody.”
The Broncs will move on to face the No. 1 seed Iona Gaels in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament on March 9. The game will start at 7.