By Shaun Chornobroff
Against St. John’s, it was a much different Rider team from the one that was embarrassed by Syracuse a mere three days ago. This was a team with grit, hustle and offensive firepower that took a much more athletic and skilled St. John’s team down to the wire, dropping a 82-79 heartbreaker on Dec. 8
The last time Rider defeated a Big East opponent, Head Coach Kevin Baggett was an assistant in the program when Rider eked out a 61-57 victory over Rutgers in December of 2007 and was a couple of breaks away from ending the nearly 13-year drought tonight.
“I was proud of our guys… I was encouraged, I was proud of the guys for competing the way we asked them to compete,” Baggett said after the game. “We’ve been challenging them to get better, compete in practice…They all talked about competing tonight, showing up the minute the ball got tipped, from start-to-finish… This team has bought in and is trying to do the things we’re asking them to do, now we just got to be better.”
Rider seemed to be well in control of the game early in the second half when a three pointer from sophomore guard Allen Powell gave the Broncs a 48-37 lead with early left in the second half.
The shot was the last part of a 17-4 run that started late in the first half and swung momentum in the Broncs favor.
St. John’s Head Coach Mike Anderson responded by calling a timeout and from then on the Red Storm had life, getting themselves back into the game, eventually taking a 57-56 lead halfway through the second half.
Center Tyrell Bladen soon tied the game at 57 with 9:38 remaining. The redshirt sophomore experienced a career night after a disappointing performance against Syracuse, racking up a career high in multiple categories, including 10 points and nine hard-earned rebounds. Not to mention a number of hustle plays that don’t show up in the statsheet and were crucial to the team’s performance.
“I thought he did some really good things defensively, offensively he scored around the basket some,” Baggett said. “He’ll get better as time goes on with more experience… I’m definitely proud of him.”
From then on it was a back and forth, David and Goliath fight, encapsulated with intensity hard to come by in a game without fans, with St. John’s hoping to avoid losing to a lesser opponent, while Rider was looking to put the entire Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) on notice with a big upset.
A close-range finish by Bladen pushed the Broncs to a 59-57 lead, which Rider then spent seven minutes trying to extend.
A three-pointer from graduate transfer Rodney Henderson Jr. gave Rider a 70-64 lead with 4:07 left in the game. Henderson, who transferred from California State Northridge, led the team in scoring with 20 points, converting six-of-nine three-point attempts.
When asked if this can be the Rodney Henderson Rider gets every night Baggett responded “I think so.”
“He’s only going to get better,” Baggett said. “We saw this when we played against him two years ago when he was at Cal State Northridge, so we know he has more to give and he will.”
St. John’s stormed back with Vince Cole putting his team on his back, scoring 12 of his 26 points in the last three minutes, including five points in the game’s final thirty seconds.
Early in the game it seemed like Rider might be in for another insufferable loss after St. John’s raced out to a 9-2 lead.
Rider clawed its way back into the game and the rest of the half was spent with both teams trading baskets. St. John’s established and used their height throughout the half, out rebounding the Broncs 26-16 and getting 10 offensive rebounds, the majority of which turned into points.
Despite being dominated on the interior, Rider went into the half with a 35-33 lead after a three-point heave from junior guard Jeremiah Pope found its way into the net with little time remaining.
Rider experienced a great scoring punch courtesy of Henderson and two other guards, Dwight Murray Jr. and Powell, who started in place of Christian Ings with the sophomore rehabbing an ankle injury.
Murray, who was arguably Rider’s lone bright spot against Syracuse had another outstanding performance, with the offense flowing through him the junior transfer from Incarnate Word scored 19 points, dished seven assists and came up with six rebounds.
Powell has grown significantly in his sophomore year in Lawrenceville, setting a career high with 17 points, also shooting 66.7% from the field and showing a knack for having baskets in needed moments.
Baggett did say he hopes to have Ings back for the team’s MAAC conference opener against Manhattan.
Between Powell’s growth, Ings’ lofty potential, Murray’s talent and Henderson’s obvious scoring ability to hit tough shots Rider’s backcourt, which was a question four days ago may be its biggest strength as it looks to outperform its preseason ranking of last in the MAAC.
Rider will start its MAAC play Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. as it travels to Manhattan to take on the Jaspers.