By Dylan Manfre
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Rider and Monmouth’s in-state rivalry extends beyond the players. There is a personal yet friendly quarrel between the head coaches, Kevin Baggett, of Rider, and King Rice, of Monmouth.
During Rice’s opening statement after Monmouth’s 72-68 win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) semifinals, he spent 1:13 candidly speaking about his valued friendship with Baggett prior to taking questions about the March 11 game. He wanted to make it known how much he enjoyed the competition.
“Before I go any further, Kevin Baggett coached a heck of a game today. His team outplayed us last week, they might’ve outplayed us today. He had those young men playing ball at a whole different level for almost the last three weeks,” Rice said. “Kevin is one of my closest friends in this [conference]. We talked all through the season.”
The semifinals contest closed the chapter on the duels between two of the New Jersey schools as conference foes. Earlier in January, Monmouth announced it will join the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) next season.
There is a certain atmosphere when these two teams play each other and the players know it immediately. Whether they played in the matchup for one season like Monmouth’s Shavar Reynolds, five seasons like Hawks guard George Papas or two seasons like Rider’s senior guard Dwight Murray Jr.
“Atmosphere was great today,” Murray said. “It probably felt like a high Division I game.”
Games against Rider are personal for Papas. During his first year at Monmouth, where he walked onto the team, his “best friend,” former Bronc Devine Eke, was a big reason why those games were competitive.
“It’s always funny playing against Rider because it’s supposed to be this big New Jersey rivalry. And I see my best friend across on the other side wearing the different jersey,” Papas said. “I’d just look at him and start laughing.”
Tournament meetings between Baggett and Rice are few and far between. To find the last time the two MAAC juggernauts met in the postseason before March 11, go back to 2016 when Rice’s Hawks clamped the Broncs 59-48 in Albany, New York.
This swansong Rider-Monmouth conference game at Boardwalk Hall had an electric atmosphere that was cultivated by a cacophony of cheers from a sold-out Rider bus carrying students. On the right of the arena were chanting Monmouth fans who made the short one-hour-15-minute trip to Atlantic City.
Even New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy took in the opening half from the front row. With three of the final four teams being in-state, his attendance was a priority.
“It’s a big deal,” Murphy exclusively told The Rider News during the game. “I’m in neutral territory, I want Jersey to win.”
Just like Murphy roots for Jersey, Baggett and Rice are consistently rooting for each other’s continued success.
“Rooting for him to win, win the whole thing,” Baggett said. “The team that beat us, you want to root for them … my relationship with King dating back before he even got to Monmouth. Again, the respect I have for him and the job they’ve done taking that program to a whole new level. He’ll do a great job in the Colonial.”
Baggett did not close the door on scheduling Monmouth as a nonconference opponent in the future and is not “afraid or opposed” to doing so.
Nor did Rice shut down the opportunity of putting Rider on the future docket but said it may not be next year. He ended his press conference commending the coaches in the league.
“This league has been great for Monmouth, it’s been great for me,” Rice said. “It helped me grow as a man and as a coach because of the coaches that were in this league that demanded me to get better.”