Stella Johnson’s record-setting performance advances Rider to semifinals

By Dylan Manfre

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Senior guard Stella Johnson willed the women’s basketball team to the first regular-season title in program history, led the nation in scoring at 24.4 points per game and the top seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament.

Johnson finished the game with 37 points and 14 rebounds in Rider’s 79-74 victory in the quarterfinal round against No. 8 seed Niagara. 

Her 37-point performance is a women’s single-game MAAC tournament record.

“Whatever she needs to do to help her team win she’s going to do — today, that was scoring,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan. “When Stella [Johnson] crosses halfcourt and she’s looking straight ahead, she’s not giving those up. There are certain times where I tell her ‘Hey, it’s time to be a little bit selfish,’ I didn’t tell her that today.”

Johnson was responsible for the first seven points for Rider and 14 of its 18 in the opening quarter. A hard fall caused her to slam her head on the hardwood and to come out of the game with 1:13 left in the first half. She went to the locker room after hitting a pair of free throws.

Rider has always relied on Johnson’s scoring output and she acknowledged an urge to stay in the game despite the rush of pain.

“I just looked up at the scoreboard and realized my team needs me and I can’t rest now,” Johnson said.

Milligan said she even tried to get senior guard Lexi Stover into the game to replace Johnson.

“To be honest with you, as soon as I realized we were about a minute and a half from halftime, I tried to get [Lexi] Stover in after that free throw,” Milligan said. “Apparently I got her out to the scorer’s table a little late but I wanted to get Stella out for that 1:17 and let her regroup. But you’re not keeping Stella Johnson down. That’s just not the way it works.”

In typical Johnson fashion, she toughed it out, started the second half and had 13 of Rider’s 20 points in the third period. Rider again held a slim 63-61 lead.

Niagara’s Maggie McIntyre, who was named the MAAC Sixth Player of the Year on March 11, unleashed her 3-point arsenal. She had 15 points at halftime, all of which came from behind the arc. It included a buzzer-beater as time expired in the first half that pulled the Purple Eagles to within one, 43-42.

Rider’s second half-defense allowed it to take a 10-point lead midway through the third period but Niagra pulled itself back with a 7-0 run. 

McIntyre exploded from behind the arc yet again. She hit her seventh 3-pointer of the game cutting the lead to two.

Milligan tasked Johnson with guarding McIntyre in the second half. With both of them finding success, it was a matter of who blinked first.

“I think it’s just length,” Milligan said. “We say ‘length is strength’ so anytime we can get length on somebody particularly on the perimeter, if we can be up on the line I think that helps us.”.

No matter how much Niagara climbed back into the game, Lea Favre kept Rider ahead. She was 4-of-4 in the fourth quarter with eight points.

Knowing Johnson will draw at least two defenders, Milligan makes sure her team is not standing around so Farve can receive passes.

“I know when people are going to guard Stella, I know people are going to pressure everyone on the team,” Favre said. “It’s a little bit about angles and trying to be open for [Stella] so she can see me and make a pass to me.”

Next game

Rider awaits its semifinal round matchup which will be the winner of No. 4 Manhattan and No. 5 Quinnipiac who play on March 13 at 11 a.m.

Follow Dylan Manfre on Twitter for updates from the MAAC Tournament.

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