By Jordan Hall
The defending Southeastern Conference (SEC) champions boasted five returning starters and one of the best post defenders in college basketball history. They were the 18th-ranked team in the country.
But none of that fazed Rider.
The Broncs pulled off the first and most significant upset of the college basketball season thus far, upending Mississippi State 88-74 on Nov. 13 for one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.
“We went into the season with high expectations, and a win like this validates it a little bit,” said Head Coach Tommy Dempsey. “It certainly gives us a boost.”
On a night when the nationally ranked Bulldogs received their ’08-’09 conference championship rings prior to tip-off, Rider did its best to spoil it. The Broncs answered the tall task of matching up with 6’9” Mississippi State forward, senior Jarvis Varnado. The future NBA first-round draft pick led America in blocks with 170 last year and is only 141 shy of the all-time NCAA record, but this night belonged to Rider.
The Broncs showed early nerves as they quickly trailed the Bulldogs 11-2 only two minutes in, with six of those points coming from Varnado, but Rider slowly hit its groove and never trailed by that margin again. The Broncs created a 21-11 run that was punctuated by a basket from senior point guard Ryan Thompson as Rider grabbed its first lead of the night, 23-22.
Mississippi State regained the advantage by eight, but the Broncs once again chipped away and went into the break with a 44-42 edge. Rider closed out the first frame, riding a 17-7 run, and that momentum carried over into the second half, making the difference.
The Broncs completely dismantled the Bulldogs in the final stretch on both ends of the floor. Rider jumped out to a nine-point lead less than four minutes in and the closest Mississippi State would come to breaking that advantage was four points.
Rider never relinquished its lead in the second half and from the 11-minute mark until the final buzzer, the advantage seesawed in the double-digit range. Junior guards Justin Robinson and Jhamar Youngblood iced the contest with six combined free throws, completing the upset and leaving Humphrey Coliseum in silence.
The Broncs’ offense was in full flight as the team shot 51 percent (30-59) from the field, but more impressively, 63 percent (10-16) from three-point range. The most crucial ingredient to Rider’s victory was its efficiency and care of the ball. The Broncs committed only six turnovers the entire night, zero in the second half, and outscored the Bulldogs 20-3 in points off turnovers.
“Once we had a good-sized lead in the second half, we slowed down and played smart, time-of-possession basketball,” Dempsey said.
Rider’s guards outplayed the well-rounded guards from Mississippi State as sophomore Novar Gadson finished with a double-double, pouring in 21 points and snatching 11 rebounds while Thompson dropped 16 points and Robinson cashed in 15. Junior Mike Ringgold showed no fear or hesitation when challenging Varnado, connecting on 10 field goals and compiling 21 points.
Varnado put up a valiant effort and finished with a line of 22 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks, but Dempsey’s strategy worked the way he wanted.
“Our game plan was to not get beat with the three in the half-court and not get beat with the three in transition,” he said. “We didn’t double-team Varnado because we didn’t think he could make enough two’s to beat us.”
Rider followed up the monumental victory over Mississippi State with an 86-71 triumph in its home opener over Lehigh on Monday.
A team like Lehigh, sandwiched in between games against Mississippi State and Virginia, can easily be overlooked, but the Broncs surely did not. Rider raced out to 19-3 lead in the opening five minutes against the Mountain Hawks and never looked back.
Lehigh, compared to the rest of Rider’s tough non-conference schedule, may not seem like a tough out, but surprisingly, this team sports a solid résumé. The Mountain Hawks were picked second in the Patriot League preseason poll and also possess its conference’s preseason player of the year, senior guard Marquis Hall.
“People view it as ‘just Lehigh’ but they’re a veteran basketball team,” Dempsey said. “I knew from a coaching standpoint that we were playing against a good team, so I impressed that on my team.”
Sparking the early spurt was Robinson, who knocked down a three-pointer, and topping it off was a three-ball from Gadson.
Lehigh trimmed the gap multiple times but Rider closed out the contest with force. Ringgold threw down a thunderous dunk off an alley-oop pass from Thompson, giving the Broncs an 18-point lead and delivering the final knockout punch as Alumni Gym erupted.
Rider’s perfect start came to end in the Cancun Challenge Thursday night as the Broncs fell to Virginia 79-46. The Cavaliers, a product of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), have a young but talented group competing in one of the elite conferences in the country.
The Broncs were out rebounded 38-22 and its shooting finally cooled off as they shot 33 percent from the floor.
Rider has received national attention and aren’t going unrecognized. Andy Katz, a senior writer for college basketball on ESPN.com, wrote a piece on what the Mississippi State win could do for the Broncs. Dana O’Neil, a columnist for ESPN.com, stated on a video segment that Rider was her “sleeper” pick for mid-major teams to watch out for. To cap it off, the Broncs received seven top-25 votes from the Associated Press poll.
The path doesn’t get easier as the Broncs continue play in the Cancun Challenge, taking on Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats are the fourth-ranked team in the country and have what many people believe is the best freshman class in college basketball history. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday.