By Jake Tiger
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Despite the stats, the seeding and the odds saying otherwise, Rider women’s basketball found itself one bucket away from taking the Niagara Purple Eagles to overtime in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament quarterfinal on March 8, after recovering from a seven-point deficit late in the fourth quarter.
Down by two points with mere seconds left, junior forward Makayla Firebaugh drove along the baseline with a clear path, and lofted a potential game-tying floater, but at the last moment, the Purple Eagles’ Aaliyah Parker, a unanimous All-MAAC first team selection, swooped in, planted her purple sneakers on the pine and drew a charge, forcing the turnover that ended the Broncs’ season on a crushing, yet soulful 67-64 loss.
“We came here with a refuse-to-lose mentality, and we came here to win,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan. “We couldn’t get that done today, but it wasn’t for a lack of heart and soul.”
Firebaugh shined as bright as ever in the Broncs’ biggest game of the season, scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting, her highest total of the season.
But even with Firebaugh at the peak of her powers, the Purple Eagles did what they do best: defense
Niagara leads the nation in turnovers forced per game (28.64) and turnover margin (9.61), the result of a relentless, well-executed scheme that the Broncs were unable to stop.
Against Rider, the Purple Eagles snatched seven steals in the first quarter alone, finishing with the game with 18 to execute the quarterfinal heist.
However, the Purple Eagles beat the Broncs primarily with rebounding, as Rider struggled to find boards in Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall without its leading rebounder, junior forward Raphaela Toussaint, who missed the MAAC Tournament with a non-COVID-19 illness.
By the final buzzer, Niagara had outrebounded Rider 42-35, and on the offensive boards specifically, the advantage was a staggering 29-10. The differential resulted in 19 second chance points for the Purple Eagles, while the Broncs only managed eight.
“They just crashed the boards super hard,” said senior center Victoria Toomey. “All my teammates, my coaches were like, ‘We need you to be aggressive. We need you to rebound and just be aggressive.’ Honestly, I had been passive up to that point.”
In terms of shooting, Rider was vastly superior to Niagara in every category, but the Purple Eagles maintained their lead with volume rather than efficiency. By crashing the glass and forcing turnovers, Niagara bullied its way to 78 total shots, leaving Rider with just 45.
“Credit to a very good Rider team, they were tough,” said Niagara Head Coach Jada Pierce. “But I felt like we were tougher.”
The quarterfinal defeat was the final game for four departing Broncs, including graduate student guard Amanda Mobley, the general of Rider’s offense and the team’s second all-time leader in career assists.
“For sure, [I was] thinking about, ‘Don’t want it to end, don’t want it to end.’ That was going through my mind for the past few days. … Definitely was worried about that,” said Mobley emotionally.
Mobley leaves Rider as the program’s all-time leader in games played, putting a solemn final tally on her record with a seven-point, 11-assist performance against Niagara.
Without their veteran point guard, Milligan and the remaining Broncs look toward an optimistic offseason, with most of the team’s core returning to Lawrenceville, New Jersey, carrying visceral experiences of both triumph, and heartbreak.
“When you get out-shot, and you get out-rebounded, and you have the ball in your hand with a chance to tie the game, then you’re doing something right,” said Milligan. “That’s called culture. It’s called high expectations, it’s called refuse-to-lose, and it’s called Rider Lady Bronc basketball.”