By Shaun Chornobroff
Record wise, the 2020-21 season was the worst season of Kevin Baggett’s nearly decade-long stint as head coach at Rider. Yet when March came along, a Rider team that lost 87.5% of its scoring the season before shocked the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) with an upset victory over Canisius in the first round of the conference tournament.
The last-seeded Broncs may have been ousted by a veteran-laden Saint Peter’s team in the quarterfinals on March 11, but by getting there in the first place, Rider showed everyone what the team had known for months the Broncs can compete with any given team on any given night.
“We’ve seen it when we play St. John’s, Manhattan, even in the Monmouth games that we can play with anybody,” guard Dwight Murray Jr. said after the team’s opening round victory on March 8. “I knew that we were a great team, we just needed to learn how to play together.”
Rider felt the side-effects of having a young team all year long. It was a recurring theme that the Broncs were trying to erase massive deficits, but did not have enough time to complete the comeback.
The same thing happened in close games with Rider losing control of multiple games down the stretch that seemed winnable. But that may just be what happens when a team loses four 1,000 point scorers in a season plagued by a global pandemic.
The Broncs, who only returned four players, only one of which, sophomore guard Christian Ings, started a game for the 2019-20 team, struggled in late-game situations without any chemistry and a limited offseason.
Rider went 3-8 in games decided by 10 points or less, consistently showing an ability to compete with the MAAC’s elite, but not quite ready to walk away victorious in those tight situations.
However, there is a lot of talent that has showcased itself at multiple points and if the victory over Canisius shows anything, the wait for Rider to go back to its winning ways may not be a long one.
Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson was one of the quartet of players on the Rider roster to have returned from the previous season. The junior center knows what a winning team looks like and forecasts a lot of positive results for this team in the future.
“Everybody has to realize that we had a different type of year than we’re normally used to,” Ogemuno-Johnson said after the team’s quarterfinal loss to Saint Peter’s. “I trust my coach, he knows he’s not doing this again, that we’re not doing it again as teammates… As far as talent goes, we do have the talent to come back next year and actually make some noise.”
Murray, a transfer from Incarnate Word, was a revelation for the Broncs. The junior guard led the team in points, assists, rebounds, steals and free-throw percentage, en route to an All-MAAC second-team selection.
But it wasn’t just Murray — talent emerged around him as well.
Allen Powell has always been highly thought of among the Rider coaches, even before getting a chance to fully show why, but the sophomore guard had a breakout season alongside Murray, inserting himself into the starting lineup and proving to be one of the conference’s most lethal three-point shooters.
In the MAAC Tournament, with Murray and fellow sophomore guard Christian Ings in foul trouble, Powell showed he was able to steady a shaking ship, controlling the offense and scoring 17 much-needed points.
Powell and Murray are aided by a strong supporting cast. Junior forward Dontrell McQuarter may not stuff a stat sheet, but his defensive intensity and willingness to be a physical presence is noted by every coach and player on the roster. When McQuarter missed four games with a family emergency, the team felt his absence, going 1-3, dropping both games of a weekend sweep to Quinnipiac, a team they are perceived to be better than on paper.
Once again, it does not stop there.
Corey McKeithan was supposed to be an immediate contributor when he stepped foot in Alumni Gym, but a knee injury in August caused the young guard to lose his freshman season. Baggett has said in the past that McKeithan can be the next great guard to come through his program.
“I watched him last summer, he got hit in the head, bloody nose, bloody lip and I thought he had a concussion, but he went right back out there and continued to play,” Baggett said in September 2020. “That’s when I knew he was tough and he has something pretty special about him.”
When Rider had its senior day this season, only one player was honored. Ings and freshman forward Lawrence Foreman are the only players from the roster who entered the transfer portal.
It was an unusually poor season for a historically successful Rider team, but if things go right, the 2021-2022 season will be a strong rebound for the team.