Reliving the best season in Rider women’s basketball history

By Dylan Manfre

Around April 2019, Head Coach Lynn Milligan called the six seniors of the women’s basketball team into her office to discuss goals for the upcoming year.

Nobody could have predicted that the coronavirus would cancel the conference tournament and that Rider would be named the conference champion via Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference bylaws.

Regardless, Milligan does not want the global pandemic ending the season to overshadow any of the team’s accomplishments. 

“I want this whole group — and in particular the seniors —  when they look back on this [season] and we are in a situation to celebrate this year on the fifth anniversary, 10th anniversary and 25th anniversary of our first-ever MAAC championship that this group remembers the history we did make and not how it ended,” Milligan said. “I want this season to be defined by the process and the journey from July through the beginning of March.”

Rider needed to defeat Monmouth in the final game of the season to win the first regular-season title in program history. After Akilah Jennings hit a mid-range jump shot to take a one-point lead, the Broncs had 0.5 seconds to come up with a play. 

Senior guard Amari Johnson rolled off a double-screen and tipped an inbound pass from junior forward Daija Moses securing the victory.

“[That shot is] what I’ve dreamed about since I started playing basketball, my very first game-winner, and it couldn’t have come at a ‘better’ time,” Johnson said.

Johnson was an intricate part of the team’s success this season and she progressed as a double-double machine. She led the conference with 16 of them and evolved into a dominant rebounder, all en route to being named the MAAC Defensive Player of The Year.

“I’ve grown exponentially this season. I set a goal for myself and achieved it. I worked hard every day to be the player I have become and I’m very proud,” Johnson said.

Senior guard Stella Johnson helped focus the nation’s attention on Rider after leading the country in scoring 15 out of 18 weeks of the season, ending the year at 24.8 points per game.

Stella Johnson is the greatest women’s basketball player to put on a Rider uniform. It’s baffling that earlier in the season she felt she did not know just how good she really is.

This season, she became the program’s all-time leader in steals, points and was the only active women’s Division I player to surpass 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals.

Stella Johnson had an unorthodox farewell to her collegiate career but it ended with a sensational scoring performance that fans grew accustomed to seeing from her. 

Even after she slammed her head on the hardwood as she fought with a Niagara player for a loose ball, she finished the game with 37 points — a MAAC tournament single-game record — and 14 rebounds. Stella Johnson said she was at peace knowing she left it all out on the floor.

“It’s just better to end the season on a win and see everybody happy that we won,” she said in late March. “I think that’s just what gave me peace overall seeing that we moved on [in the tournament].”

Over the course of the season, a lot of players stepped up to fill new roles and will be in new spots next year. Here’s a breakdown of the returners that will need to make an impact next year.

Sophomore Point Guard Amanda Mobley

Mobley filled in for Lexi Posset who graduated last year. Immediately, she came into her own and lifted the Broncs to much-needed victories.

Mobley came up with three huge 3-pointers, two of which were from the opposite end of the court to beat the buzzer against Marist. She finished the game 3-for-6 from long range, helping Rider get the overtime victory but the game displayed her poise, confidence and composure to step-up and take contested shots.

Mobley ended the game with her first career double-double as she dished out 10 assists.

She ended the year second in assists averaging 5.3 per game and was 10th in the league in steals.

Junior Forward Daija Moses

Moses began the season with the starting group in place of senior forward Lea Favre, who was recovering from an ankle injury. It was a good time for Milligan to assess how she would use Moses in the rotation.

Once Favre was back with the starters, Moses mainly held the sixth spot in the rotation and entered the game if a player got into early foul trouble.

Moses had her best game of the season on Feb. 29 against Canisius where she scored a career-high 13 points. While she will be the lone senior next year, Moses will be tasked with leading a young returning core and will need to have games as she did against Canisius for the team to win some tough games.

Freshmen Center Victoria Toomey and Guard Maya Hyacienth

This freshmen duo did not see a lot of time on the court this season, however, they will in the upcoming year.

Hyacienth came into games mainly for defensive purposes and to lock down defenders in late-game situations. Occasionally she would hit a 3-pointer or two to extend a lead but as a sophomore, she will be expected to do that routinely.

Toomey saw the most minutes of any freshman and at 6-foot-2, she will likely be starting at center next year. However, if she gets into foul trouble it will be difficult to show her improvement.

***

All things considered, Rider will probably not be a top seed in the MAAC next season. Top five or six? Maybe. It will certainly be interesting to see how things play out once sports do eventually return.

Follow Dylan Manfre on Twitter for the latest on Rider Athletics.

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