By Brandon Scalea
Rider had it in the palm of its hand and let it slip away.
In arguably one of the biggest games in the 58-year history of Alumni Gym, the Broncs’ Zoo was jammed with a standing-room-only crowd. The students and the fans all did their part. The atmosphere was electric for 40 minutes; it felt like a championship game for a then 10-15 Rider team. The Broncs (11-16, 7-9 MAAC) did their part as well — for only 38 minutes.
In those final two minutes of regulation, a late double-digit Rider lead was squandered, literally stolen from its hands like the basketball that was ripped away by Monmouth in two late turnovers.
That double-digit lead had students talking of storming the court — what would have been a perfect ending to a night that brought a national TV audience to Lawrenceville and had ESPNU broadcasters raving about its student section, calling it the “best in the MAAC.”
Instead, a game-winning three-point shot by Hawks junior guard Justin Robinson with three seconds left stunned the sold-out gym into an eerie silence, and led to chants of “Let’s go Monmouth” from the nomadic fan base that has grown larger and larger as the team has earned big win after big win.
Junior center Kahlil Thomas said that despite the loss, the crowd was amazing all night long.
“The atmosphere in our building was through the roof,” he said. “I loved it. The fans always play a big role because we don’t just play for ourselves or the team — we play for them, as well.”
The come-from-behind win for Monmouth (22-5, 14-2 MAAC)all but earned its at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The clutch shooting from Robinson, who totaled 21 points and six assists, might have earned him conference player of the year.
The first half of the game showed the Hawks playing their up-tempo style of offense, as the Broncs struggled to defend the three-point line. At the other end of the court, the Monmouth defense struggled as well, as the Broncs matched the Hawks shot for shot. A late Monmouth run gave them a 44-35 lead heading into the break.
At the start of the second half, the Broncs came out and played arguably their best basketball of the year.
Three consecutive three-pointers from senior guard Zedric Sadler sent the crowd into a frenzy. Twelve points from Thomas added to an incredible 31-9 run that gave Rider a 66-53 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
However, Monmouth stormed back. Trailing 76-62 with just over four minutes remaining, Monmouth went on a 14-0 run to tie the game with 59 seconds on the clock.
On the next possession, Thomas dropped a layup and almost sent the roof crashing down, as the Broncs regained a 78-76 lead with 20 seconds left.
Then, with the crowd standing and cheering, hoping and praying for a defensive stop, Robinson hit a shot from beyond the arc to give Monmouth yet another signature victory in 2016.
Thomas described the late Rider collapse in simple terms.
“They hit big shots down the stretch and we couldn’t score,” he said.
Graduate guard Teddy Okereafor was slightly more technical.
“We just lost our composure,” he said. “We had some careless turnovers that they were able to capitalize on. They hit big shots so we have to give them credit for that.”
On Feb. 14, Rider was able to bounce back from the heartbreaker with a decisive win against Niagara. Naturally, on a day that bears his name, senior forward Shawn Valentine had a career afternoon with 17 points, six rebounds and five blocks. Lundy followed him off the bench with 13 points and three rebounds.
The Broncs got out to an 8-6 lead early on and did not look back, as they won by 18 points. While some may have thought Rider’s confidence was at an all-time low after the Feb. 12 loss, every player on the court looked in sync, and it seemed like the Broncs couldn’t miss. And while the gym wasn’t as rowdy as the previous night, the crowd of about 1,400 had plenty to cheer about.
The Purple Eagles were shut down for most of the game, but junior guard Emile Blackman was able to put up 21 points. While Blackman was the only player to make some noise for Niagara, the Broncs had five players in double digits. Thomas also recorded his 11th double-double on the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Okereafor said the team did a good job of moving on from the Monmouth loss.
“You have to put it behind you,” he said. “It still stings and you think about it, but you have to learn from your mistakes and focus on what you can control.”
Rider is now 5-3 in its last eight games played. The Broncs will next host Siena on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. in a game that will be broadcast on ESPN3. The Broncs lost to the Saints last time they played in Albany 63-52. Rider will look to overcome the third-place Saints at home and show the MAAC that they should not be taken lightly.