By Jordan Hall
Call it luck. Call it a prayer. Call it what you want, but the fact of the matter is Niagara junior Tyrone Lewis banked in a 30-foot heave with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation. The shot tied the contest and eventually led to a heartbreaking 93-89 double-overtime loss for Rider in the MAAC tournament semi-final on March 8. One day earlier, the Broncs defeated St. Peter’s 67-58 in the quarterfinals to reach their matchup with the Purple Eagles.
The sixth seeded Peacocks finished the regular season at 11-18 overall and 8-10 in the MAAC, while splitting the season series with Rider. The Broncs captured the third seed after winning nine of their final 12 games and entered the matchup determined after falling short in last year’s MAAC championship.
Rider displayed no signs of early nerves and jumped out to a 20-6 lead only seven minutes into the game. Junior point guard and First Team All-MAAC selection Ryan Thompson scored eight points during the stretch while senior guard Harris Mansell cashed in six points on two 3-pointers.
“In a playoff environment, you want to throw the first punch, and we were able to do that,” said Head Coach Tommy Dempsey.
St. Peter’s slowly chipped into the lead and cut the deficit to seven as the Broncs went into the break with a 39-32 advantage.
The Peacocks came out hungry in the second half, quickly taking their first lead of the night, 42-41, on a layup with 13:59 left in the frame. The advantage seesawed until Thompson decided to take over the final 10 minutes of the contest. Rider exhibited one of its strengths all season by closing out the game on a 21-10 run, 13 of those points coming from Thompson.
“We’ve been here before,” said Dempsey. “This group knows how to win and close out games.”
Thompson, the MAAC’s second leading scorer (18 ppg.), had himself a night, finishing the game with a career-high 30 points on 10-13 shooting from the floor and 10-12 from the line.
“When it comes to the MAAC tournament, every player takes their game to the next level because it’s either you win or you go home,” Thompson said.
The difference in the contest was that Rider shot 11 more free throws than St. Peter’s and converted on nine more.
“We grinded out the win on a night where we didn’t shoot the ball well,” Dempsey said.
The victory boosted the Broncs one step closer to their goal and gave them a semi-final date with Niagara. The second-seeded Purple Eagles boasted a 25-7 record and a 14-4 mark in the conference. They also possessed two First Team All-MAAC selections in Lewis and Villanova transfer junior Bilal Benn.
The largest margin held by either team in the first half was six points, a lead Niagara held late in the frame. The second half was no different as it consisted of five ties and nine lead changes.
With 4:38 left in regulation, the Purple Eagles contained a 64-60 lead until the Broncs struck up an 11-4 spurt that was punctuated by freshman Novar Gadson’s fast break jam. The run gave Rider a 71-68 advantage with only 4.8 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, the Purple Eagles inbounded the ball to Lewis, who Mansell flew by trying to commit the foul, but he missed. Lewis then took one dribble and threw up a 30-footer that miraculously dropped as the Niagara hopeful erupted, sending the game into overtime.
“It was hard to watch that shot go in because it felt like the wind just got knocked out of us,” Thompson said.
The extra stanza provided more drama. The Broncs fell behind early and trailed 77-71 with 50 seconds on the clock, and stepping up was who else but Thompson. The swingman once again made the game his by scoring seven of Rider’s final nine points, forcing a second overtime.
“Ryan said at one point, ‘We’re not going home’ and he continually made big plays,” Dempsey said.
In the second extra period, both teams each had leads and with seven seconds left, Niagara held a two-point advantage, 91-89. After Thompson brought the ball past mid court, he went to cross over to his left to make his move but he lost the handle, turning it over to Niagara. The Purple Eagles sealed the game with two foul shots, ruining the Broncs’ NCAA tournament hopes.
“We could have easily rolled over after Lewis’ shot and being down late in the first overtime but we fought hard and showed a lot of character,” Dempsey said. “I’m proud of our guys.”
Rider had four players in double figures as Thompson led the way with 27 points and 13 boards, while sophomore Mike Ringgold dropped in 20 points and snatched 12 rebounds.
The Broncs finished the ’08-’09 season at 19-13 as they fell to Liberty, 79-64, in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
Rider won’t forget the gut-wrenching loss to Niagara and they’ll use it as fuel for the highly anticipated upcoming season.