By Corey Donetz
The journey for a MAAC championship begins this weekend with third-seeded Rider riding high after big wins over conference foes Marist and Saint Peter’s last weekend.
The Broncs will play sixth-seeded Canisius in the first round of the tournament to break the season-series tie. Buzzer-beaters gave the road team a win in each regular season game. This time they’ll battle it out at a neutral site at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn, at 10 p.m. on Saturday.
Rider heads into Bridgeport riding a five-game winning streak in which the Broncs have outscored opponents by an average of more than 10 points per game.
The Broncs return to the MAAC tournament with eight players who played in the tournament last year and five players who have MAAC tournament finals experience.
“I think experience will be a huge factor in the tournament,” said senior Justin Robinson. “We have multiple guys who have played in the finals and other big games and know exactly what it takes to win big games.”
The first matchup between Rider (22-9, 13-5 MAAC) and Canisius (15-14, 9-9 MAAC) was at the Koessler Athletic Center, the home of the Griffins in Buffalo, N.Y.
Junior Novar Gadson grabbed an offensive rebound and made a put-back layup as time expired to give the Broncs a nail-biting 77-76 victory. In the win, Rider shot 11 for 22 (50 percent) from three-point range and 26 for 59 (44.1 percent) from the field. Robinson and Gadson scored 19 and 16, respectively, while senior Mike Ringgold added 17 points.
Canisius also shot well, 31 for 63 (49.2 percent) and eight for 20 (40 percent) from three-point range, but the Griffins made six fewer free throws than the Broncs. Rider also had the advantage in rebounds, 37-32.
In the second meeting, Canisius took down Rider and gained its first-ever win at Alumni Gym. The Broncs also shot well from the field in this game, 25 for 56 (44.6 percent), but were ice cold from three-point range, shooting just 2 for 14 (14.3 percent). That would prove to be the difference in the outcome.
“I think we need to improve on our consistency,” said Robinson. “When we are consistent, we are as good as any team. For the most part, we have been this season, so I think we will be fine.”
Canisius was able to keep the rebounding advantage in its win over Rider, while its percentages were down, 24 for 60 (40 percent) from the field and 9 for 26 (34.6 percent) from three. Ringgold and Gadson scored 16 and 12 points, respectively, while freshman Danny Stewart had a team-high 17 points as well as nine rebounds.
Along with rebounding and shot consistency, bench play will be a huge factor when these teams face off again. Over the past five games, Rider’s bench has averaged more than 20 points per game and has given the team a huge boost.
“We just have to stay focused,” added Stewart.
The winner of this game will face the victor of the matchup between Iona and the Siena/Manhattan winner on Sunday at 4 p.m. Rider won both games against Manhattan this season, but split the season series with Siena and Iona. The winner of that game would then go on to play in the MAAC finals on Monday at 7 p.m.
Rider sealed the number three seed with a 75-72 home victory on Senior Day against Saint Peter’s on Sunday. Gadson led the way for Rider with a game-high 24 points. He added 10 rebounds to record his sixth double-double of the season and his second in as many games.
Gadson also had a key steal followed by a fast-break layup with 10 seconds left to ice the game.
Before the game Robinson, Ringgold, and fellow senior Patrick Mansell were honored for their success at Rider. The three seniors tallied the most wins for a senior class in Rider history with 81. Against Saint Peter’s, Robinson and Ringgold each scored eight points. Ringgold was a basket and an assist shy of a triple-double as he added 11 rebounds and nine assists.
“Senior night was very, very overwhelming,” said Robinson. “Having my mom, aunt and prep school coach walk out with me meant so much.”
Two days prior, Rider was on the road to take on Marist. The Broncs controlled the game from the tip-off, trailing only once, 6-4, before going on a 28-4 run to take a 32-10 lead. Four of Rider’s starters scored in double digits, including Gadson, who had a game-high 24 points to go along with 12 rebounds. Sophomore Jon Thompson added 16 points while Ringgold and Stewart had 14 and 13, respectively.