By Rob Rose
In a nail-biting battle for first place that lived up to everyone’s expectations, the men’s basketball team beat Canisius, 83-82, and emerged as the MAAC’s top dog, extending its winning streak to 10.
The MAAC Tournament doesn’t begin until March 1, but fans got a potential championship preview on Feb. 18 when the conference’s top two teams met. Both Rider and Canisius entered the game with 13-2 records in MAAC play.
Alumni Gym was packed to the rafters for the highly contested matchup, and the players fed off the crowd’s energy throughout the game.
Rider (21-7, 14-2 MAAC) opened the scoring on a layup by freshman forward Dimencio Vaughn, two of his eight points posted in just the first five minutes. At the first official timeout, the Broncs led 14-6. An 8-0 run by the Golden Griffins tied the game before Vaughn connected on a three-pointer to put Rider up 17-14.
Vaughn, the winner of consecutive MAAC Player of the Week awards, finished the game with 22 points and nine rebounds. He has been the Broncs’ go-to guy offensively during scoring droughts.
“I embrace every challenge I get, always. It doesn’t matter who it is, to be honest. I’m just here to play ball and get the win,” said Vaughn.
The Broncs led for the entire first half, but never by more than nine as the Golden Griffins kept the game close by scoring points in the paint.
In the final seconds of the first half, as Rider held the ball for the last shot, freshman guard Jordan Allen was fouled on a drive. He hit both free throws, and the Broncs took a 47-43 lead at halftime.
Canisius came out of the locker room on fire with an 11-2 run to take its first and largest lead of the game on a layup by Jermaine Crumpton.
With 10 lead changes and five ties during the second half, the intensity of the game rose. After a demoralizing block by sophomore forward Devine Eke, Canisius’ Takal Molson and Eke were issued double technical fouls after getting tied up boxing out on a foul shot.
Following a free throw by Eke that gave Rider an 81-76 advantage with 2:11 left to play Molson connected on a three-pointer to cut the lead to two. Junior guard Anthony Durham hit a pair of free throws to put the Broncs up 83-79 with 1:33 remaining, but the Golden Griffins answered with another three-pointer, trimming the lead to 83-82.
Allen swiped away a Golden Griffins’ pass with 30 seconds left in the game and Head Coach Kevin Baggett pleaded with his team to hold the ball, but the Broncs lost a crucial turnover with 14.6 seconds left when sophomore guard Steve Jordan threw the ball into the stands on an ill-advised pass.
On the ensuing possession, Isaiah Reese attempted to drive but had the ball knocked away by Jordan. Reese gathered it again and released a last-second shot but it was blocked by Eke, securing the 83-82 victory and sending the sold-out crowd into a frenzy.
“Give our guys credit. We find a way in the end. I always say, champions find ways to win, and these guys are champions,” said Baggett. “They stuck together.”
The Broncs tied the season series with the Golden Griffins after dropping their MAAC opener at Canisius, 77-76, on Dec. 29.
On Feb. 15, Rider hosted Siena, one of the bottom teams in the MAAC this season. For the Broncs, a matchup with a struggling team before a showdown with Canisius could have been a trap game, but Rider handled its business.
Five Broncs scored in double digits and Rider led for all but the first two minutes of the game.
A second-half run by the Saints trimmed the Broncs’ lead to eight, but Rider answered with a 13-0 spurt of its own to secure the 97-71 victory.
Vaughn scored a team-high 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Jordan stuffed the stat sheet with 17 points, six assists and five rebounds.
As a sophomore, Jordan is now 11th all-time in assists in Rider history with 322, passing Barry Spears, ’72, and Terrance Mouton, ’07.
The Broncs’ Ratings Percentage Index is now 62, the highest of the year. ESPN and CBS Sports have Rider listed as a 14th seed in the East region of the NCAA Tournament, meeting Cincinnati in their latest projected brackets.
Rider now has the second-longest winning streak in all of Division I.
“When we started this thing in July, they didn’t even know how to jump to the ball, let alone defend a ball screen, back screen or a down screen,” said Baggett. “So to sit back and watch it in the heat of the moment and have it all come to fruition is unbelievable. That’s what, as a coach, makes you happy and proud. I love these guys because they battle for me all year long. I get on them and they’ll tell you, I coach them hard. But they understand why — we’re trying to get somewhere that we’ve not been in a long time.”
With two games remaining, Rider is in the driver’s seat to clinch the MAAC regular-season title. However, both top teams have a tough test before the regular season concludes.
Rider faces Monmouth, followed by Iona, in their final two games, while Canisius battles Niagara and then Marist. With a one-game lead, if Rider defeats Monmouth and Canisius loses on the road against a third-seeded Niagara team, Rider earns the MAAC’s top seed.
However, if Rider drops its final games against two teams who have combined to win the last four MAAC regular-season championships, and Canisius wins its two final games, the Golden Griffins will clinch the top seed.
A regular-season title guarantees at least a National Invitational Tournament (NIT) bid. Winning the MAAC Tournament earns the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
The Broncs hit the road to battle in-state rival Monmouth on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN3.
Rider’s Senior Day will be Feb. 25 in the season finale against Iona.