By Brandon Scalea
The men’s basketball team has risen from the depths of the MAAC to respectability with five wins in its last seven games.
On Jan. 9, Fairfield completed the season sweep of Rider with a 69-64 win at Alumni Gym. Graduate guard Teddy Okereafor had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, but missed a three-point shot. It was another game in which the Broncs (9-14, 5-7 MAAC) battled, but could not make the decisive plays down the stretch.
This tough loss proved to be a turning point for the Broncs.
After an 0-5 start to a season that began with high hopes stemming from a third-place projection in the preseason poll, the Broncs have found a rhythm that wasn’t there in the early going.
Okereafor said the Broncs have focused more on the defensive part of the game.
“We’re just coming out of the gate more aggressive,” he said. “Our defense is what’s making us go on offense. Being able to get stops and force turnovers allows us to push the ball, and now we’re making the big shots.”
Five days after the defeat at the hands of the Stags, the Broncs rallied from behind to defeat Marist 102-100 in a game that went to double overtime. In the win, Okereafor broke a MAAC record for free-throws made in a single game with 25. He would finish with a career-high 38 points and hit the game-tying shot with 1.4 seconds left.
The momentum from its first MAAC win of the season carried over to a Jan. 17 meeting with Iona, the last contest of a three-game home stand. For the first time since 2012-13, Rider beat the Gaels, overcoming a 16-point, first-half deficit. In the win, the Broncs were able to contain the highly-touted senior guard A.J. English, a player who many believe will have a successful career in the NBA.
After heading to halftime trailing by 8, the Broncs used a 16-4 run to take a lead they would never relinquish. The Gaels were able to pull within a point late in the contest, but the Broncs ultimately took the game by a score of 79-75, in large part because of a pair of late free-throws by freshman guard Kealen Ives.
On Jan. 21, Rider’s upward journey was briefly halted by Siena, who used a late run to win 63-52 in front of 5,500 fans in Albany, New York.
The Saints ended the game on a 16-4 run, the biggest moment being a four-point play that gave them a 51-48 lead. They eventually won 63-52.
The road loss, however, sparked a three-game win streak for the Broncs — three wins in convincing fashion.
Rider, inspired by a full house at Alumni Gym thanks to the return of students for the spring, beat Quinnipiac in a rout on Jan. 24. Junior guard Jimmie Taylor, who had been slumping all season, came alive. He had a combined 9 points in the three previous games, but finished with 14 against the Bobcats. Junior center Kahlil Thomas added 14 of his own.
Thomas, who has successfully filled the void left by the departure of center Matt Lopez, said everyone has the right attitude as of late.
“We’re just a lot more disciplined,” he said. “Now we’re just really coming together as a team and finishing games off. My mindset this season was to not be a letdown. We play for each other.”
The Broncs led by 10 at the half and blew the game open late in the second, winning 75-52.
The best performance of the year, however, was yet to come. In a trip to Jersey City against St. Peter’s, the Broncs put on a show against a team that had previously held first place in the conference. From the opening tip, Rider was relentless.
Junior forward Xavier Lundy led the way with 18 points and seven rebounds. The Broncs out-rebounded the Peacocks 37-22 and allowed only 45 points, the lowest total they have allowed this season. The Broncs went on to win by 31 points, 76-45.
On Jan. 31, the Broncs were quickly put to another test with a home matchup against Canisius, a team that has shot the ball well this season. This was another game the Broncs controlled from start to finish. Only once did Canisius lead, going on top 26-25 with 4:30 left in the first half.
Standout performances by Thomas and Okereafor, who had 21 points and 20 points, respectively, gave the Broncs their third in a row, 79-68.
On Feb. 2, Rider headed up to Riverdale, New York for its first meeting of the season with Manhattan.
Unfortunately for the Broncs, they would go cold in the final minutes of the game to allow the Jaspers to take a 9-0 run to the buzzer.
After Rider took a 57-56 lead with 3 minutes left, it was all Manhattan after, and the home team went on to win 65-57.
The Broncs will take their annual western New York road trip to play Niagara on Feb. 5, then Canisius on Feb. 7.