By Brandon Scalea
In a game against first-place Monmouth where Rider needed its players to rise to the challenge, perhaps its most consistent player this season, junior center Kahlil Thomas, put up 18 points and hauled in 13 boards.
Last season the men’s basketball team was about to become 19-9 overall, holding a 22-point lead against Quinnipiac on Feb. 19, 2015.
It was looking like a dream season. But, as the Broncs took care of that comfortable lead against the Bobcats, their all-MAAC center, Matt Lopez, went for a layup and collided into the basket support, landing awkwardly on the shining Alumni Gym floor.
Rider’s chances of its first-ever MAAC title fell from the sky along with its seven-foot center. The Broncs lost their next game to Niagara and never recovered. In the three regular season games that followed the Lopez injury, Thomas managed seven points and two rebounds in the Niagara loss, one point and five rebounds in a win at Monmouth and no points in a win against Marist.
The Broncs were ultimately eliminated in the first round of the MAAC Tournament by Saint Peter’s.
A year later, Thomas has not only shaken off his warm-up shirt and been a starter in every game, he’s emerged as a presence in the paint. With 11 double-doubles to date, his breakout junior season has most Rider fans forgetting Matt Lopez ever donned the cranberry and white.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I was trying to fill Matt’s shoes, but when we were playing together we were kind of playing side by side,” Thomas said. “But I wasn’t really trying to be like him. I just wanted to be myself out there.”
Thomas currently leads the MAAC, shooting 58 percent from the field. Last year’s leader in that category was Lopez. Thomas is second in the conference right now in rebounding, only behind Siena’s Brett Bisping. In 2014-15, Lopez was second in that category, too.
However, Thomas’ success did not come overnight. In fact, he really did not come out of his shell until after one of Rider’s toughest losses of this season — at Maryland on Nov. 20.
In that game, the then-No. 3 Terrapins came at him with some of the best guards in the Big Ten. Thomas battled with determination and played a major role in giving the Broncs the edge until late in the second half. He finished with 14 points and four rebounds, but had a major mishap in the closing moments of the game that essentially allowed Maryland to come out on top.
In the final minute, he missed the front end of a one-and-one and failed to come up with a key rebound. However, since those mistakes, Thomas has been a major part of Rider’s turnaround this season. After starting the season 4-12 overall with an 0-5 MAAC record, the Broncs have taken eight of their last 13.
Head Coach Kevin Baggett had nothing but positive things to say about his 6-foot-7 star, even after an 84-64 loss to Siena on Feb. 19.
“Kahlil is a big part of our team,” he said. “He and [graduate guard] Teddy [Okereafor] have been the two most consistent guys for the most part this season. I’m definitely happy for him, but we need more guys than him playing well.”
Despite the praise, Thomas has not always been on Baggett’s good side.
“Coach always tells me that if someone isn’t talking to you, they don’t want you to be there,” Thomas said. “Even when he recruited me to come play here, he told me he was going to constantly be on me. He just wants me to be good. He wants me to be great.”
And when Thomas plays great, it’s no secret the team rallies around him. Against then-No. 14 Providence on Dec. 17, he shot 60 percent from the field and grabbed 10 rebounds. After the game, Friars Head Coach Ed Cooley was so impressed by Thomas that he pulled him aside and told him to keep up the good work.
Apparently, he took the coach’s advice to heart. In the latest stretch of the season, he has switched his game into an even higher gear. Thomas has reached double figures in points in all of the last seven games, matching the mark in rebounds in four of those. In a come-from-behind win at Niagara on Feb. 5, he and junior forward Xavier Lundy combined for 41 points.
Thomas said that his success this season has even surprised him at times.
“I just go out and try to play as hard as I can for as long as I can,” he said. “I just go out there and when I’m feeling it, my teammates do a good job of getting me the ball in different ways including the pick-and-roll. I’ve been making some tough shots. Sometimes I look back at some of the shots I’ve made and I’m like, ‘Dang, I didn’t know I could make that.’”
With only two regular season games remaining before the conference tournament, Rider is going to need its big man to continue to be reliable if it wants to make a run this year. He feels as though the team has showed signs of being the kind of team that could take home the MAAC crown this year in Albany.
“We just have to keep playing hard and practicing hard because we know we’re a good enough team to do it,” he said. “Sometimes we’re sluggish out there and at times we’re like an All-American team. We need to be consistent and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that recently.”
Although the Parkway, Florida native wanted to go to school in the Northeast because he likes the cold, Rider fans will hope that Thomas stays hot.