By Carolo Pascale
The 2021-2022 season has been a long and difficult one for Rider men’s basketball. It’s been mired by inconsistency on both sides of the ball. However, alongside all of that, there have been flashes and moments that have shown the true potential of the team. Coming into the Broncs regular season finale against Monmouth on March 5, the Broncs showed that potential, upsetting the No. 4 seeded Hawks 74-65.
“I thought that collectively we played well,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett. “Guys were focused and did what we needed to do in order to get this win and go into the tournament with a little momentum.”
Not only was this the 2021-2022 regular season finale, it was also senior night for the Broncs. The Broncs celebrated the careers of senior guard Jeremiah Pope and graduate student forward Dimencio Vaughn.
Pope has been a consistent shooter off the bench for the Broncs in his time at Rider, shooting a solid 37% from the field over two seasons.
As for Vaughn, what else can you really say about a player who’s done it all? He’s the program’s all-time steals leader and is the only player in the program’s history to be in the top ten of points, rebounds, blocks and steals.
“The fans were great. I thank everyone for coming out,” said Vaughn. “It’s my last game here. I enjoyed it. The atmosphere was great. Fans were great. I appreciate everyone.”
Of course after the senior day festivities, there was still the game to be played, and it was an important one at that.
The game had major Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament standings implications for Rider, who before the game sat at the tenth seed. Monmouth already had its position locked at the fourth seed, but with an upset, the Broncs had a chance to move up the standings.
Just like the Broncs last few games, defense was the linchpin for the success of the team. The Broncs played very solid defensively in the first 10 minutes of the first half, giving the Hawks lots of trouble at the top of the key. But Monmouth wasn’t going to go down easy, regardless of whether it had its position secure in the MAAC Tournament.
And over the next five minutes, both teams turned up the heat offensively. But the Broncs rode on the talents of senior guard Dwight Murray Jr., junior guard Allen Powell and junior forward Mervin James. Murray and James did much of the scoring, while Powell was dishing out incredible passes.
Rider’s offense took it to another level around the 3:30 mark, going on a nice 13-5 run to close out the first half. The Broncs ended the half up 43-30, with James leading the way with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
“I was more focused on the scouting today and then just locking in on the little stuff on defense and just making the right reads on offense,” said James.
Another factor that played into the game was the amount of missed free throws by the Hawks. With eight minutes left to play, Monmouth had shot just 10-for-19 from the free throw line, while the Broncs shot 8-for-9.
Monmouth made it a game with a huge three at the seven minute mark to get the Broncs lead down to one, but Rider went right back down the court to get it back to three.
As more time continued to run off the clock, the Broncs were able to once again ride off the play of James, who was doing it all for Rider. He was able to convert on several clutch layups to get the lead back to eight points.
With just over a minute to go, senior forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson, who’s had impressive and timely dunks this season, did so once again, throwing down the ball to get the Broncs up by 10.
The lead held despite a strong last push from Monmouth, resulting in a 74-65 win.
“We’re sponges and also gladiators,” said Vaughn. “We’re little compared to certain teams, but we’re always going to put up a fight. We’re not going back down. We’re not scared.”
James finished with 23 points, shooting an outstanding 10-for-12 from the field and 3-for-4 from the free throw line. He also added seven rebounds and a steal for good measure.
“I just know if we do what we’re supposed to do, and make sure that we get our rest and guys get prepared the right way, which they will, we have just as good of an opportunity as anybody else,” said Baggett.
And for Vaughn, to get the win in his final home game as a Bronc, he said “it’s priceless.”
With the win, the Broncs move up to the ninth seed and will face No. 8 Manhattan in the first round of the MAAC Tournament on March 8. Gametime is set for 5 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN+.