The Rider men’s basketball team needed two wins over the weekend to at least have a share of the MAAC regular season, and that’s exactly what happened.
After an 88-76 win over St. Peter’s (6-23 overall, 3-15 MAAC) on Friday, the Broncs (21-9 overall, 13-5 MAAC) had a convincing win over Fairfield (14-15 overall, 11-7 MAAC), 87-59, making them co-MAAC regular season champions with Siena, which beat the Peacocks 77-64 in its season finale.
“I’m just proud of the kids because it was just so set up today to be special and losing wasn’t really an option today,” Head Coach Tommy Dempsey said. “We really needed the game for a lot of reasons to send the seniors on the right note and we had such a great season. I said to one of the coaches this morning that we can’t lose today because we deserve to be rewarded for the season we had and we were just so determined and the guys played great on both ends of the floor.”
Siena will be given the No. 1 seed in the MAAC tournament because the tiebreaker is decided by who has the best record against the highest seeded remaining teams in descending order. The Broncs will be the No. 2 seed.
“You could argue it 100 different ways and there will always be [loop] holes in the tiebreaker system,” Dempsey said. “We’re the only team going into the tournament that’s beaten everyone in this league and that gives us a good sense of confidence that there’s no one in the league that we can’t beat.”
The man running the ship for Rider has made it from the bottom to the top.
When he got the job, he was given the interim tag and the Broncs’ only managed eight wins. The team made strides the next season doubling their win total, but the Broncs were average at best.
This year, this team has won a regular season record 21 games and it ties them with the most wins ever with the 1993-94 squad that made it to the NCAA Tournament.
Because of the success the team had this year, Dempsey was finally rewarded as the MAAC Coach of the Year.
“Two years ago was a different situation with the interim tag and wasn’t the best situation to coach in,” Dempsey said. “Once I got the job in April 2006, I looked at it in a different light. I knew we could climb quickly, I knew we had some good young players and I knew Ryan was coming in.
“I trusted in my abilities that we could get a couple more pieces to put a championship type team on the floor. So to get here is rewarding and it took a lot of sacrifices [from the players and coaches].”
Rider, which shot nearly 52 percent from the field and hit 10 3-pointers, was led by junior guard Harris Mansell, who scored a game-high 17 points and connected on five 3-pointers, tying a career high.
Mansell has had the hot hand and is heading into the tournament playing his best ball of the season, averaging 18.5 points per game in the last four contests going 18-28 from behind the arc during that stretch.
“We’ve done more things on offense to get him his shots,” Dempsey said. “He always rewards the coach when you call a play for him.”
Senior forward Jason Thompson had 16 points and 12 rebounds, collecting his 20th double-double of the season. He was one of the three seniors who was on the team when the Broncs last shared a regular season championship in 2005.
The First Team All-MAAC recipient enjoyed the fact that he got to cut down the nets one more time and knows that this team has the potential to leave its mark in the conference tourney.
“It feels good,” Thompson said. “I had this feeling freshman year, and it was a special team. We have a shot to get to the NCAA Tournament. We have a lot of veterans that can step it up and guys that can give us a spark.”
Rider held the lead for most of the first half and toward the end started to create distance between them and the Stags to control the game. Up 30-26, the Broncs closed out the half on an 8-0 run with senior Joel Green scoring six points in his final game at Alumni Gym.
The lead would then increase to 65-49 and Rider would go on an 8-0 run capped off by a Thompson three at the top of the key to put the game out of reach.
MAAC All-Rookie selection Mike Ringgold had 11 points and five rebounds. Sophomore Ryan Thompson was a Second Team All-MAAC honoree and had 10 points, five boards and four assists in the game.
Freshman guard Matt Griffin tied a career high with nine points.
Jason Thompson closed out the season second in the nation in rebounding, first in the MAAC in blocks and second in the conference in scoring. For his efforts, Thompson was awarded the MAAC Player of the Year trophy and also named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District Three First Team.
Three Big East standouts joined Thompson on that list in Seton Hall’s senior Brandon Laing, Pittsburgh’s junior Sam Young and Villanova’s sophomore Scottie Reynolds.
Laing is second in the Big East in scoring averaging a tad over 19 points per game. Young is right behind him with 18 points per game. Villanova’s young guard is 11th in the conference in scoring with 13.6 points per contest.
Mansell credits the win over Cal State Northridge that snapped a three-game losing streak as a main reason for co-regular season champs’ current three-game winning streak.
“It really helped,” he said. “We had two games that we just let go in the second half and it almost started to become like that in California. We got together and said we were not going to lose this game and we have just taken that attitude into this game.
“There was a vibe in the locker room that we weren’t going to let this team come back. You could sense it from everyone.”
The fact that Rider will be the second seed doesn’t bother Dempsey because he feels the team accomplished a lot and it was still able to get a split title.
“We did everything we could do today and we know that we are regular season champs,” Dempsey said. “I think we took care of business today and what little number is next to our name is not important but the fact that we will hang a banner that says 2008 MAAC champions, that will be most important.”
Rider’s tournament will start on Saturday.
“We have to have that mentality coming into the game that we have to play for 40 minutes,” Jason Thompson said. “We have to have that killer mentality.”