They almost had it. The Broncs had a lead for most of the game, and an upset over North Carolina State on national television looked promising until guard Farnold DeGand hit a three-pointer about seven minutes into the second half to give the Wolf Pack its first lead since 13:11 in the first.
From there, N.C. State, the No. 24-ranked team in the country according to the Associated Press, never looked back and beat Rider 72-63 in Rider’s opener at the Old Spice Classic that took place at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
The Broncs were able to hang tough with a Wolf Pack team that made it to the ACC finals last year, knocking off Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech in the process.
“The first thing you have to do is play with confidence,” said Head Coach Tommy Dempsey. “If you don’t think you can win and don’t believe in yourself then you have no chance. Throughout the game our confidence continued to grow and we were starting to believe that we could beat them.”
Junior guard Courtney Fells led the N.C. State attack with 18 points and was selected as one of eight players for the all-tournament team. Freshman phenom forward/center J.J. Hickson had 13 points and four blocks in only 21 minutes coming off the bench, including one crazy put-back that he put up in mid-air and picked up the foul.
For Rider, senior forward Jason Thompson’s name was heard constantly from ESPN broadcaster Len Elmore throughout the game as he had a double-double, posting 24 points and 15 rebounds against the N.C. State big men.
Thompson also made it onto Sports Center’s “Top 10 Plays” the next day for his block on junior Brandon Costner early in the first half.
“It was a good sign to see him play better competition and be able to shine,” Dempsey said.
Thompson’s younger brother, sophomore guard Ryan Thompson, had seven points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Freshman guard Justin Robinson contributed 13 points.
N.C. State shot nearly 58 percent from the field, including going five of six from three-point range, while Rider’s field goal percentage was 36.1 in the second half, going only two of nine from behind the arc.
Rider got right back up and picked up a big 82-73 win over Penn State of the Big 10. It was a game where both pairs of brothers on the team made key contributions.
Jason Thompson once again led the charge for the Broncs with another double-double, picking up 21 points and 10 rebounds. Ryan Thompson finished second on the team in scoring with 19 points. He also grabbed six rebounds.
Junior guard Harris Mansell had 17 points for Rider, shooting three for seven from three-point territory and six for 13 inside the arc. Redshirt freshman Patrick Mansell proved to be valuable off of the bench, scoring 13 points in just 12 minutes of play.
Freshman Mike Ringgold led the Broncs with nine boards.
Forward Geary Claxton paced the Nittany Lions with an impressive 23 points and 12 rebounds while Jamelle Cornley added 17 points.
The Broncs closed out their time in Florida with a 82-69 loss to No. 25-ranked Kansas State.
The Thompson brothers once again rose to the occasion, as Ryan picked up a double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds and Jason had 24 points along with seven boards. Combined, they shot 17-28 from the field.
Forward Andre Gilburt led the Wildcats (5-1 overall) in points with 22 and also picked up 11 rebounds. Guard Jacob Pullen had 19 points.
Rider was able to contain freshman forward Michael Beasley, who still managed to have a solid game, picking up a double-double with 13 points and 10 boards, but he wasn’t able to match his success from earlier in the season, who had two games of 20 points and 20 rebounds.
Throughout this tournament, the Broncs were able to keep the opponent’s big men in check and Dempsey credits the team’s off-season preparation.
“As a staff, we thought that if we were to be good this year that would we would have to be a good defensive and rebounding team,” he said. “It paid off against the better teams as we were able to out-rebound them. If you can defend and rebound, you can play against anyone.”
Jason Thompson was able to shine when the ESPN spotlight was on him and he was named a member of the all-tournament team. He was also selected as the MAAC Player of the Week for the week of Nov. 19-25 and as Mid-Majority.com’s “Baller of the Week.”
If being able to play with these big schools has boosted the team’s confidence, Dempsey said only time will tell.
“I hope so,” he said. “We learned a lot about ourselves in this tournament. Every game presents a new challenge and we just need to focus on what we need to get better. We’re starting to learn a lot about ourselves and hopefully we will continue to improve.”
Rider finished the tourney in fifth place.
It looked like they did have a bounce in their step as the Broncs ran over NJIT 84-58 on Wednesday.
Jason Thompson posted yet another double-double with 17 points and 17 rebounds. Ryan Thompson led the Broncs in points with 20. Harris Mansell chipped in with 15 points of his own when he shot 4-7 from the field and 2-3 from behind the arc.
Senior Kamron Warner hit both of his three-point attempts for six points in nine minutes.
After shooting 34.5 percent in the first half, the Broncs lit up the NJIT defense in the second half shooting over 65 percent and also went 6-10 from downtown.
The next will be at home on Saturday at 3 p.m. against Binghamton.