By Dylan Manfre
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — In a slugfest between Rider and Saint Peter’s that game came down to the final seconds, and the ball was in the hands of Rider’s lone senior, forward Daija Moses.
Saint Peter’s forward Kendrea Williams was called for a travel with eight seconds left on the clock. Then it was Rider’s turn to possibly punch the Broncs’ ticket to its first championship game appearance since 2017.
Moses hoisted a 3-pointer with 0.8 left on the clock. The ball clanked off the outside of the rim, time expired and the quest for a championship was over after a heartbreaking 72-67 loss in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) semifinals to Saint Peter’s on March. 12.
Daija Moses takes what is probably the last shot in a Rider uniform for her. pic.twitter.com/CQ90OPVkzJ— Dylan Manfre (@Dylan_Manfre11) March 12, 2021
Rider Head Coach Lynn Milligan said before the season the only negative coming out of playing in Atlantic City was that one game would be the last in a cranberry uniform for Moses. It seemed fitting for her to attempt the last shot.
“She’s certainly made some big shots for us throughout the year. We tried some different options on that play and Daija was there,” Milligan said. “ [She] took it strong, took it confidence, it was right on the rim. It was a good look … nobody wanted to make that shot more than Daija. … She’s given her heart and soul to this program and like I say all the time, I don’t ask for anything more than everybody’s heart and soul.”
A distraught freshman guard Makayla Firebaugh agreed it would be inappropriate for the ball to be in the hands of anyone else with the game winding down.
“Daija is our senior and she takes the big shots,” said Firebaugh who finished with 16 points on 50% shooting. “If anyone has the right to take that shot it’s Daija becasue she’s earned it.”
The Broncs threw plenty of 2-3 zone defenses at the Peacocks throughout. — it was a good attempt at limiting their star guard Taiah Thornton who ended up with 16 points.
“Rider did a fantastic job of mixing up their defenses,” Saint Peter’s Head Coach Marc Mitchell said. “I don’t think my kids recognized that and how to attack it so [I] give a lot of credit to Rider.”
Sophomore guard Maya Hyacienth did an exceptional job guarding the Saint Peter’s guard, especially since she did not get the opportunity to do so in their regular-season meeting because of injury. She is typically guarding a team’s fastest and best player.
“They definitely shot the ball very well today,” said Thornton who had eight of her 16 points come from the free throw line. “We had some trouble with their defense. … [the game] came down to the last 10 seconds.”
Rider kept the game incredibly close, not allowing the Peacocks to get ahead by more than nine points. Any time Saint Peter’s jumped with some momentum, the Broncs answered.
Hyacienth was part of a run where the two teams traded 3-point shots during the final 2:00 of the third quarter. Junior guard Amanda Mobley and freshman co-Rookie of the Year gaurd Makayla Firebaugh each hit 3-pointers. The trio pulled Rider to within one heading into the final quarter of play.
“Honestly, someone said in the locker room, we just didn’t have enough time. I think we could have won this game,” Firebaugh said. “I just think we needed to be more of ourselves and [know your personel]. But you’re right, I don’t like losing.”
Although this ends the team’s season, Milligan does not want this blemish to be viewed as anything other than a “Cinderella run”. Rider started the year scrapping for wins and developing chemistry in a pandemic-riddled season that featured a myriad of scheduling changes.
Milligan is not even worried about the direction the team is heading in because she knew all season long the Broncs would make a run in the tournament.
“The narrative is wrong, to be really honest. The direction of our program is that we’re a top team in this league and we’ve been in the semifinals five years in a row,” Milligan said. “And the expectations of this program are to win championships whether we have six newcomers and a bunch of freshmen or sophomores or we have Stella Johnson. That’s the expectation we have for our program. We didn’t start the way we wanted to but there’s nobody in that locker room that is surprised at where we are.”
Rider started the season 1-12 and grinding for wins — getting to the semifinals is a testament to the program. Even Mitchell and his players cited the Broncs’ maturity since their regular-season meeting.
“Rider didn’t lose the game,” Mitchell said. “We had to actually beat them today.”
Thornton agreed their record does not reflect the type of program they faced in the game.
“Looking at their record, you can’t really look past them,” Thornton said. “It’s really deceiving. It was pretty back and forth.”
Sophomore center Victoria Toomey, who had a sensational ending to the season with 17 points on 8-10 shooting, was proud of the growth the team has made.
“If you look back at our first game versus Villanova versus now we’re a completely different team and we’ve grown together through it all through the ups and downs,” Toomey said. “I think it’s exciting how far we’ve come and we’ll be back next year.”
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