By Steven Eggert
On Saturday, Rider will face a team from which it just stole a win. The Broncs (11-15, 8-6 MAAC) travel to Niagara to face the Purple Eagles (10-16, 5-9 MAAC), a squad they trailed by 17 last week before roaring back to win 74-73 on a last second three-pointer from senior Brandon Penn.
Last night, Rider escaped past Canisius (4-20, 1-13 MAAC) by a score of 71-66, a game in which the Broncs never led until 1:38 left in regulation and held on for the win. They were led by senior Novar Gadson who scored 19 points.
Rider’s last loss came at Loyola (MD) (18-5, 11-2 MAAC) on ESPNU, 63-45, a game in which the Broncs were outmatched from the beginning. Rider scored a season-low 12 points in the first half. Head Coach Tommy Dempsey felt that the team needed to come out strong in the second half to redeem itself on the national broadcast.
“We were on national television and we were getting embarrassed, and I think it was important that we did,” Dempsey said. “We started the second half on a 15-0 run, and kind of established ourselves in the game. We only scored three baskets in the first half, so it was more challenging to have some pride and some heart.”
At home two days later, the Broncs struggled during the first half again. This time, however, they were able to overcome a double-digit deficit to grab a last-second win from Niagara. Penn, who before nailing the game-winner was 0-8 from three-point range in the contest, drained the shot with 0.8 seconds remaining on the clock. Junior Jonathon Thompson found Penn standing open for the shot.
“It felt great to pass him the ball,” Thompson said. “I missed him for a game-winner earlier this season, so I felt obligated to give him the ball. He also said that he likes to take shots that count the most.”
Despite his difficulties shooting from the floor earlier in the game, Penn was confident when he put up the decisive shot.
“It was a shot that I’ve dreamed about hitting my whole life, just like every kid in the world who plays basketball,” Penn said. “It was a great feeling for me when I hit it, knowing my teammates can count on me to hit big shots when needed. You have to have a short memory playing this game and not think about missing every time no matter how many you miss previously.”
Dempsey believes that the Niagara win is important for the team’s mindset and confidence heading up north to face the Purple Eagles again.
“To win like we did as we head up to [New York] this weekend, it was important for us to keep a positive frame of mind, and it wipes the taste of the Loyola game out of our mouths,” Dempsey said.
Unlike at home in MAAC play, the Broncs have struggled on the road this season.
“Conference games are always tough, so we take every game as a big game, especially on the road,” senior Jeff Jones said. “We have to play at a high level on defense and rebound the ball to come out with wins. Being on the road is tough, but the team’s confidence is at an all-time high and we believe we can get the job done.”
Dempsey feels that after the road trip, he will be closer to figuring out the team’s true identity.
“If we play well on the road this [weekend], it will show a lot because we’ve struggled on the road lately,” Dempsey said. “And I think we can find out whether we are up there or just a middle-of-the-road team. I still think the script of this team is still being written.”
Since starting the season 1-10, the Broncs are now 10-5 in their last 15 games. Jones believes that perseverance is a huge reason for the turnaround.
“We have been through a lot of adversity and I think it just made us stronger as a team,” Jones said. “Guys never stopped going hard in practice and we continued to believe that we were one of the best teams in the conference.”
Penn added that the team’s improved health helps, too.
“A few guys were banged up, which set us back,” Penn said. “Now we have a full roster where everyone can play big minutes.”
As long as the team focuses for the next month, Dempsey hopes that Rider will be ready for the MAAC Tournament.
“The goal is just improvement at this point,” Dempsey said. “I said to my team that if the MAAC Tournament was this weekend, we aren’t ready. We have a month to get better; focus day by day and try and be more of a complete team. I think they’ve taken to that philosophy, not looking ahead, but looking at the process, and when we get to March, we can do something when we get there. Right now we aren’t good enough, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be good enough in a month.”