By Jake Tiger
Before its regular season opener, Rider women’s basketball eyed one final tuneup in the form of an exhibition game with a nearby Division III foe: The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).
In a solid first showing, the Broncs claimed a 70-45 victory in what was an all-around trouncing of the lesser Lions.
“I really liked the way we ran our offense tonight,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan. “I thought we shared the ball extremely well. I thought we executed pretty well for this early in the season.”
The Rider attack dominated in all facets, specifically in the paint, outscoring TCNJ 32-18 under the basket thanks to double-digit scoring efforts from junior forwards Raphaela Toussaint and Toni Blanford, who each had 12 and 14 points respectively.
Blanford was a force off the bench in her first game as a Bronc, arguably putting together a flawless performance. In less than 14 minutes of play, the junior college transfer was a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor, while providing three steals and a block on the defensive end.
“I know what I can bring to the table,” said Blanford confidently. “That’s the goal every day, every game… to at least be close to 6-for-6.”
While Blanford feasted down low, her teammates provided supporting fire from three-point range, doing so with impressive 40% efficiency.
“Our offensive philosophy is to give up the shot that you can make for the shot that we can’t miss, and we did that tonight,” said Milligan. “We’ve got some weapons on the offensive end, and this team is incredibly unselfish.”
One of those weapons is junior guard Makayla Firebaugh, who unloaded the clip from long range. The preseason All-MAAC third team honoree opened the game with a trio of threes to give Rider an early 9-0 cushion.
At the final buzzer, Firebaugh finished with 16 points in 26 minutes on 4-of-9 shooting from distance.
“I didn’t have the season I wanted to last season, as everybody knows, and I do have a chip on my shoulder for that reason,” said Firebaugh. “I was in the weight room, like, all summer just trying to get bigger, faster, stronger, and I believe I did that.”
The exhibition game also saw a key player return to the floor for Rider in senior guard Maya Hyacienth, who missed all but the first three games of the 2021-22 season due to a hyperextended right knee.
Against TCNJ, a healthy Hyacienth proved to be a key cog in Rider’s bench rotation. While her only shot in the game was a missed three-pointer, she made five of her six free throws and her air-tight defense led to three steals.
“Maya’s been 100% for a little bit now,” said Milligan. “She’s responded extremely well, she’s playing without fear. … Maya is getting back to who she was before her injury very quickly.”
With a healthy roster, prominent transfers and another offseason’s worth of work, the Broncs appear ready to redeem themselves after a ninth-place finish last season.
Rider’s road to redemption officially begins on Nov. 7, when it welcomes the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to Alumni Gym.
The game will feature a pregame jersey retirement for Rider women’s basketball legend ‘20 Stella Johnson, as she will be the first player in program history with a retired jersey.
The Broncs’ regular season opener begins at 7:00 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN 3.