By Shaun Chornobroff
When two true rivals take the floor there is a different type of intensity to the matchup. That sentiment held true for the Rider men’s basketball team when it welcomed Monmouth to its home floor on March 4 and 5.
“This rivalry, I think it was big time before I became a part of it,” said Monmouth Head Coach King Rice on a webinar with reporters. “When you first get involved with this one its just another game, but no it’s the Rider game.”
Despite the two teams, who are usually near the top of the conference, being on opposite sides of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) standings, there was not a lack of effort on the court. Rider, which came into the weekend trying to avoid finishing last in the conference, fought hard against a more experienced Monmouth team, which was hoping to leave Lawrenceville with the MAAC regular season title and the first seed at the conference tournament.
Monmouth did not leave Alumni Gym with the first seed in the conference tournament and the Broncs were unable to avoid the MAAC basement, losing both games to Monmouth by a combined six points.
A familiar storyline once again emerged for the Broncs in the opening game of the series; the team found a way to get in its own way, eventually dropping the game 77-74 in overtime.
A jumper from junior guard Dwight Murray Jr., who led Rider with 21 points, gave the team a 66-57 lead with 3:14 left on the clock. But the Broncs crumbled as the Hawks defense flew to their rescue, forcing multiple turnovers down the stretch, allowing Monmouth to climb back into the game.
“I don’t know, we struggled to execute,” Head Coach Kevin Baggett said of his team’s late game collapse. “We talked about doing this and what we need to do in practice. We knew what they were going to do, we just didn’t get it done.”
With 46 seconds left Monmouth’s Marcus McClary knotted the game at 68 and sophomore guard Christian Ings was unable to hit a well-contested shot near the basket at the buzzer to help Rider escape with a victory.
Overtime was a story of missed opportunities for Rider, which scored on its first two overtime possessions and led for a majority of the extra period.
With 1:48 left in the five-minutes of extra basketball, junior center Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson found himself at the free throw line with a one-and-one with his team ahead 74-73, but the usually reliable free throw shooter failed to extend the Rider lead.
Rider forced a stop, but missed three shots on its next possession, then with 26 seconds left in the game George Papas nailed a triple for Monmouth to give the visitors a 76-74 lead, their first lead in more than 17 minutes of game time.
Rider’s final possession was a mess. The team was unable to get Murray the ball and had to settle for a deep three that Baggett admitted after the game that he wished his team didn’t have to take.
Rider’s second loss of the week ended in controversial fashion. On his senior night, graduate student Rodney Henderson Jr. raced up the floor with his team down three points with seconds remaining. Henderson, one of Rider’s best shooters, seemed set to get off a potentially game-tying shot less than three seconds before the final buzzer, when a questionable foul was called on Monmouth sending him to the free throw line with an impossibility to tie the game on his own.
It was a rare occasion that saw Henderson and the rest of the team upset that they were sent to the charity stripe.
“The guy missed Rodney and it should have never been called, he overran Rodney,” Baggett said after the game.
Rider went into the halftime break up 28-24, but Murray picked up his fourth foul in the midst of a strong second half start from Monmouth and the Broncs found themselves trailing 39-33 with 13:22 remaining.
Murray re-entered the game and it wasn’t long until the Broncs were back in front. The junior guard was putting on a clinic, pacing the team with 23 points and 11 rebounds, but eventually fouled out of the game with 36 seconds remaining.
Among the issues that contributed to the loss were Rider’s free throw shooting. The Broncs came into the series the MAAC’s best free throw shooting team, but shot an abnormally low 44.4% from the line in the loss.
“We got to make them, they’re big. You always got to make free throws,” Baggett said. “We’ve been a good free throw shooting team all season long, now we’re coming down the stretch and we’re struggling a little bit.”
Rider will next take the court in Atlantic City when it opens up the MAAC Tournament by facing Canisius determined No. 6 seed at 7 p.m.
Follow Shaun Chornobroff on Twitter for the latest on the men’s basketball team and for coverage of the MAAC tournament.