By Carolo Pascale and Jake Tiger
With the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament right around the corner, the Broncs looked to make up ground in the standings on Feb. 25 and Feb. 27, taking on Niagara and Iona in close games that resulted in the Broncs defeating the Purple Eagles 70-68 and falling to the Gaels 67-61.
‘We needed this one’
Returning home after a rough two-game stretch on the road, the Broncs looked to bounce back in front of a raucous crowd at Alumni Gym on Feb. 25, when they took on the Niagara Purple Eagles. Defense was the name of the game for this one, and the Broncs stood tall, defeating Niagara 70-68.
“Good win for us. We closed the game out,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “We made it interesting. But start-to-finish, I thought our guys did a really good job.”
The defense was the biggest factor of the game and the Broncs put on a clinic in the first half. The Broncs were running a high-press, high-tempo defense that forced the Niagara shooters into ISO situations.
“We just focused on that end. We’ve been working on some different things, we made some adjustments when teams tried to isolate us at times, those kinds of things,” said Baggett.
Both teams were very stingy in terms of allowing points, but when points did come for Rider, they came off the hands of senior forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson. His eight points led the Broncs at the end of the first half.
Once the first half horn sounded, the Broncs held a 29-21 point lead. The defense held strong and managed to hold the MAAC’s second-leading scorer, Marcus Hammond, to zero points in the first half.
“You try to take away their best player. Our guys weren’t going to allow him to get any breathing room,” Baggett said.
The second half saw the Purple Eagles find some cracks in the Broncs defensive scheme, chipping away at Rider’s lead early in the half.
But the Broncs were able to adjust and hold the lead, never letting it dip below seven points.
Sophomore guard Corey McKeithan and junior forward Mervin James were crucial for the Broncs, both playing lights out defensively, helping the Broncs maintain a lead for much of the second half.
With about three minutes left, Ogemuno-Johnson threw down a monster slam dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
“During practice, guys try to tell me to dunk every opportunity I get. It’s more of a momentum changer for us,” said Ogemuno-Johnson.
That dunk helped the Broncs jump out to a 13 point lead, the team’s largest of the game.
Hammond was a lifeline for the Purple Eagles, hitting two miraculous triples to get the score within two, but he sent Broncs junior guard Allen Powell to the free-throw line with just three seconds left, putting the Broncs up by four and sealing the game.
“We’ve never doubted ourselves from the first game that we have a good team,” said Baggett, “We needed this one. We needed to get off that losing streak and we needed to win at home.”
Senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. led the Broncs in points with 18, while Powell finished with 14, and Ogemuno-Johnson with 13.
‘Close, but not close enough’
The Rider faithful created a vibrant sea of cranberry in Alumni Gym on Feb. 27 and watched anxiously as the Broncs nearly toppled the top-seeded Iona Gaels.
Despite an inspiring second-half turnaround, Rider fell short of completing its comeback, losing 67-61.
“They’ve got some good players. It would not surprise me if we were in the finals and they were in the finals. It would not surprise me if we both got knocked out in the first round,” said Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and Iona Head Coach Rick Pitino. “This league is really close.”
The game began with a surprise, as Baggett opted to start junior guard Sedrick Altman in place of James, making Rider’s already undersized starting five even smaller.
When asked about his reasoning for benching James, Baggett offered no comment.
Iona’s size advantage was evident and fully utilized, as it smothered Rider in the paint, routinely pinning their layups to the backboard or swatting them into the stands.
The Gaels finished with eight blocks as a team and showed why they are third in the nation in blocks per game.
“I feel like I did okay,” said Powell. “Everyone had to win their matchup today and we didn’t.”
Powell led Rider in scoring with 19 points, but nobody on Rider was able to score efficiently as the Broncs shot 30.8% from the field while Iona shot 42.8%.
“Tough loss. They made more shots,” said Baggett. “Our guys played hard and it was close, but not close enough.”
With just three minutes left to play, a Murray triple cut Iona’s lead down to three and the Broncs had a real shot at victory.
Though, Iona’s all-around superiority would ultimately outshine Rider’s effort and hustle, as Iona sank consecutive threes in the closing minutes and put the game out of reach.
“We’re not that far off. It’s just the little mistakes at the end that make us lose games. We gotta fix that,” said Powell.
While a win against Iona would have been huge for the Broncs, they certainly gave the Gaels a run for their money, and Baggett expressed confidence in his team going forward, believing his men would come through when it mattered.
“This team can beat anybody, including Iona,” said Baggett. “When we get to Atlantic City, I like our chances just as much as anybody [else’s].”
After the loss, the Broncs find themselves at the bottom of a five-way tie for sixth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). If the standings stood as is, the Broncs would enter the tournament as the 10th seed, but with two games remaining, a big leap in the standings is still possible.
Rider will attempt to make one final push before the MAAC Tournament, starting with a trip to Fairfield on March 3.