Rider drops series opener to Fairfield behind Firebaugh’s career high

By Dylan Manfre

New year, new team? After playing without two of its starters and without a full strength starting five in 15 days, Rider entered the first quarter confusing plenty. Rider has not been known to get out to the best starts early in games this season but against Fairfield on Jan. 2 it did exactly that.

Though it started out the first and third quarters well, Fairfield extended a lead late in the game and Rider was left with a 70-59 loss. It was Rider’s highest scoring game this season.

Despite the loss, Rider Head Coach Lynn Milligan was as energized as ever from her team’s performance.

“I wish it was 2 o’clock already,” she said on the postgame Zoom call. “I can’t wait to play tomorrow because I know the things we saw today, we can make a couple tweaks [to]. … We’re ready to get right back out there.”

It is easy to see why Milligan is so encouraged by their play, especially from freshman guard Makayla Firebaugh, who had a career-high 19 points, along with sophomore guard Maya Hyacienth who had 17.

“Makayla doesn’t play with any fear. That’s the best thing about a freshman because a lot of times you get apprehensive … but Makayla’s not that type of kid,” Milligan said. 

The two underclassmen guards complement each other well and Firebaugh said when one of them starts to find a rhythm, the rest of the team feeds off the energy.

“When Maya gets hot, it causes other people to get hot,” Firebaugh said. “You just get excited for her because [when] she starts going it just makes you want to score off of that as well.”

Fairfield flexed most of its muscles in the latter quarters cutting an eight-point lead down to one and harped on Rider’s neck and kept them on its toes. Guard Sam Lewis, who is coming off a 39 point performance against Siena, hit her first 3-point shot of the game. It was part of a 15-8 run for Fairfield that saw five different Stags contribute a basket.

Andrea Hernangomez drained a 3-point shot with 1:42 left in the first half giving Fairfield its first lead of the game. The Stags went into halftime with a 34-29 lead.

Earlier in the season, Milligan said Rider had not played a good third quarter yet. She said the first and third quarters were terrific. Rider held Fairfield to just seven points in the first quarter, whereas Rider had 15 — its second most in an opening quarter.

Milligan tasked Hyacienth with guarding MAAC Preseason Player of the Year Lou Lopez-Senechal, who finished with a season high of 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Milligan had high praise for her young guard in matching up against one of the league’s best players.

“I know [Lopez-Senechal] had points, but she’s the [Preseason] Player of the Year for a reason — she’s going to score,” Milligan said. “She has to be kept off balance. I thought, certainly in the first half, we did a really good job on her. I thought she stepped up in the fourth quarter, the way you probably expect her to, but we did force her into out-of-rhythm shots.”

“She’s got really good footwork and I know the types of shots she likes,” Hyacinth said. “I just have to be in her face the whole time.”

Rider is still in search for its first win in conference play, which it has an opportunity to get on Jan. 3 in the series finale against the Stags at 2 p.m.

Follow Dylan Manfre on Twitter for the latest on the women’s basketball team.

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