By Ben Smith
The Rider men’s disappointing basketball season was punctuated by a quarterfinal loss in the MAAC Tournament on Saturday, March 3.
“We fought till the end,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said.
In the end, however, their grit was not enough to keep the Broncs from being eliminated at the hands of the eventual runner-up Fairfield Stags, 65-63.
Junior Jonathon Thompson cut Fairfield’s lead to 63-62 with a three-point jump shot in the final seconds of the game, but Rider was unable to convert a last ditch effort to tip the ball in after a missed free throw.
Trailing 65-63 with 0.4 seconds left on the clock, Thompson purposely missed a free throw and freshman Junior Fortunat’s tip in attempt hit the backboard but missed, sealing the game.
Thompson scored a career-high 19 points, a shining grace from a returning player in what was a disappointing game for Rider’s core of seniors. Thompson, who is not usually spotlighted for his scoring prowess, netted Rider’s last six points of the game and sank four shots from three-point range.
“We probably have the most underrated player in the conference in Jon Thompson,” Dempsey said. “He’s one of the better guards going forward in the [conference] today.”
Seniors Novar Gadson and Brandon Penn shot a combined 1-11 for Rider and were outplayed by fellow senior and transfer student Jeff Jones who shot 7-9 and made 2-4 three-pointers in finishing with 19 points.
Although it was not a performance the Broncs would like to end the season with, the loss was uncharacteristic of a team with early expectations that were finally being fulfilled.
“In the second half of the year we really started to play better,” Dempsey said. “By the end of the year I think we were really playing as one of the better teams in the [conference] as we expected to be. We just came up a basket short in our quarterfinal game.”
Rider began the season 1-10, a substandard start for sixth-year Dempsey and a Broncs team that had won 23 games the previous year. Rider eventually picked up in conference play and finished 13-19 overall with a 10-8 mark in the MAAC.
“I believe that when we got to the MAAC [Tournament], we were able to compete for the conference [title],” Dempsey said.
It was the first time since the 2006-07 season that Rider failed to reach the semifinals.
Rider had beaten Fairfield less than a week prior to its meeting at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., edging them out in Alumni Gym by a nearly identical score, 65-62. Fairfield would go on to lose in the championship to Loyola (MD), a team that had won the title only once in school history.
“We’re forward thinking,” Dempsey said. “You can regret, or you can work to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Rider will miss the sharp offensive skills of its seniors and the coaching staff is already looking for the next group of youth who will shoulder the scoring load.
“Immediately we start preparing to put a good team on the court for next year,” Dempsey said. “We have a really good nucleus of young talent.”
That is not to say that the Broncs will be without growing pains. This season, Rider’s four seniors made up the majority of the starting lineup; next year’s team will contain only two seniors.
The leadership that players like Penn offer to Rider’s talented underclassmen is invaluable when facing many hardships.
“I try to take everything from all four of my years at Rider,” Penn said “I’ve learned a lot, not just as a player, but also as a person. I’m thankful for my opportunity to play here and now it’s time to move on.”
Penn is optimistic about continuing his career in the game of basketball.
“I’m talking to a few agents right now,” he said. “I’m trying to play overseas and go pro. I feel I have a few more years in this game.”
Rider’s seniors consistently led the team in steals, blocks and rebounds while also compiling the healthiest free throw percentage of any class (.78).
“The seniors (Penn, Gadson, Jones, Kevin Noon) were all great guys and we’ll definitely miss them,” Dempsey said. “They were good parts of this program.”
Despite the slow start, the Broncs finished the season with quality wins over every team in the MAAC conference besides first place Iona, led by possible NBA lottery pick, senior Scott Machado.
“One of the things you pride yourself on at the end of the season is asking yourself: did your team get better? In our case, I absolutely thought that our team got better,” Dempsey said. “We’re still very excited about what our team can be next year and the process of building that team starts now.”