Seventh-seeded St. Peter’s trumps Rider at MAACs

By Thomas Albano

After the men’s basketball team’s season was ended in upset fashion at the MAAC Tournament, their season was given a rebirth with a bid to a postseason tournament — only to end after the first game.

Rider (21-12, 15-5 MAAC) ended its 2014-15 campaign with two losses —a 68-59 loss to St. Peter’s on March 7 at the MAAC Tournament in Albany, New York, and a first-round loss in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) Tournament in Chicago to Loyola Chicago.

Junior guard Khalil Alford felt the team could have advanced further, possibly moving on to the 68-team NCAA Tournament.

“It was definitely difficult,” Alford said. “That was our mindset the whole season — to win the [MAAC] championship — and we came up short. We thought this was the year we could have won it.”

Coming into the MAAC Tournament as the second seed, and earning a bye to the quarterfinals, but playing without injured senior center Matt Lopez, the Broncs opened the game with a layup by sophomore forward Khalil Thomas. The seventh-seeded Peacocks (16-18, 8-12 MAAC) answered with a 3-pointer and did not look back, not relinquishing the lead to Rider at any time during the matchup.

That shot from beyond the arc was the start of a 9-0 run for St. Peter’s in the first five minutes after the initial Rider basket. The Peacocks then not only answered any basket the Broncs made, but also took advantage of turnovers. In fact, St. Peter’s scored 11 of their first half points off Rider turnovers. The first half ended with the Broncs trailing 34-20.

Rider attempted a comeback to start the second half, going on a 12-1 run for the first four minutes, lowering their deficit to 3. That was as close as the team would get, however. The Peacocks spent the next six minutes of the half getting their lead back up to 12, successfully answering any basket Rider made.

Free throw trouble also reared its head again for the Broncs, with the team going only 13 for 22 from the charity stripe in the game. St. Peter’s, on the other hand, went 30 for 39 from the free throw line, including two off a technical foul on Head Coach Kevin Baggett. Rider lost the game 68-59, to end hopes of a first MAAC title.

Third-seeded Manhattan went on to defeat the top seed, Iona, for the second year in a row in the MAAC Championship game.

Despite being eliminated in the MAAC quarterfinals for the fourth year in a row, the Broncs were selected to participate in the 16-team CBI Tournament, and traveled to Chicago to take on their first round opponent — Loyola Chicago (20-13, 8-10 MVC).

The game started as a back-and-forth struggle, with five ties and five lead changes in the first half alone. The half ended with Rider out in front 36-31.

The Broncs attempted to hold on to their lead at the second half’s start, leading by 9 on two occasions during the first four minutes — their largest lead — but the Ramblers started to slowly come back. Loyola Chicago managed to tie the game with 2:30 left to play, and then made another basket to take the lead.

The Broncs tied the game again on a jump shot from junior guard Teddy Okereafor, but could not capitalize on any opportunities in the last minute of play. Okereafor went only 1 for 4 in free throw attempts during that minute and junior guard Zedric Sadler, who co-won the MAAC Sixth Man of the Year Award, missed a potential buzzer beating 3-pointer to seal the game in the Ramblers’ favor, 62-59.

“If Zedric had made it, I think we would have won because we’re undefeated in overtime,” Thomas said. “We’re pretty hard to beat in overtime.”

Injuries gave the team struggles during the season. Senior forward Junior Fortunat was hurt at the beginning of the season and Lopez’s season ended on Feb. 19 because of a torn ACL. Alford believed this affected the team and cost them more potential success.

“Most of the team was banged up,” Alford said. “We’ve been playing hurt all season and it played a major part in our performance.”

However, this season was arguably the most successful in years. The team’s 15 conference victories were the most since entering the MAAC, and the 21 overall victories ties a wins record set in 2008. In addition, Baggett was named MAAC Coach of the Year and was named a finalist for the Ben Jobe Award, an award presented to the top minority coach in the NCAA at the Division I level.

With next season being Alford’s senior year, he feels he’s ready to step up and lead the team to the next level.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” Alford said. “I have a big role on the team. [My college career] has gone by fast.”

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