By Austin Ferguson
From a regular-season standpoint, the women’s basketball team finally reached the mountaintop.
For the first time in program history, Rider clinched the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) regular-season championship on a miracle buzzer-beater from senior guard Amari Johnson to defeat Monmouth on March 7.
The first-place Broncs arrived in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as favorites to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament. The tournament isn’t without its road bumps for Rider, but the Broncs are more than prepared to make a deep run.
Rider’s season in brief
A bad weekend prevented the Broncs from completing a perfect MAAC season, but an 18-2 league finish is virtually the next best thing.
Rider’s undisputed star was senior guard Stella Johnson. Stella Johnson finished the season with an average of 24.4 points per game, which earned her the NCAA Division I scoring crown.
Stella Johnson was also a unanimous selection to the All-MAAC First Team, while Amari Johnson and senior forward Lea Favre earned All-MAAC Second Team honors.
The Broncs’ All-MAAC selections were joined by a regular rotation of freshman guard Mya Hyacienth, freshman center Victoria Toomey, sophomore guard Amanda Mobley, junior forward Daija Moses, senior guard Lexi Stover and senior forwards Tracey Goodman and Aubre Johnson, all of which have been solid contributors to Rider’s success throughout the season.
It would be an understatement to say that this season is championship or bust for the Broncs. With six seniors on the squad, this is Rider’s last chance with the core it has to make it to the summit and go dancing in March.
It also goes without saying that it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to have the talent of Stella Johnson at your disposal. It would be nothing short of a shame if Rider sends Stella Johnson off to the WNBA without at least one NCAA tournament under her belt.
Rider’s potential MAAC opponents
The Broncs easily earned a first-round bye in the MAAC tournament. Rider’s tournament starts with an easier matchup, though as it progresses, extremely dangerous opponents lie ahead.
Rider’s quarterfinal matchup: Niagara Purple Eagles
Rider may have had a sigh of relief knowing it did not have to play Saint Peter’s in the quarterfinals. The Peacocks upset Rider for one of its two conference losses on Feb. 6, though the Broncs got their win back on March 5.
Thankfully for Rider, Saint Peter’s fell 11 points short of advancing out of the opening round and solidifying a date with the Broncs.
Rider will be facing Niagara on March 11, which defeated the Peacocks 64-53 on March 10. Unlike with Saint Peter’s, the Broncs swept their season series with Niagara, winning by double digits in their Jan. 25 matchup.
Niagara’s leader throughout the season has been guard Jai Moore. The All-MAAC Second Team selection averaged 16.9 points per game and will be a consistent force against the Broncs in the quarterfinals.
It would be an upset for any team to defeat Rider in the MAAC tournament, but that upset would be emphasized should the Broncs drop to an eighth-seeded Purple Eagles team after such a historic season.
Rider’s likely semifinal matchup: Quinnipiac Bobcats
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
After winning 52 consecutive MAAC games, Quinnipiac dropped its first league game of the season to Iona on Jan. 2. Since then, the Bobcats dropped seven more MAAC matchups, which brought them to fifth place at the start of the MAAC tournament.
Quinnipiac’s quarterfinal opponent is fourth-seeded Manhattan. Though the Jaspers hold a higher ranking, Quinnipiac’s pedigree, headlined by its lone All-MAAC selection in third-team member Taylor Herd and its leading scorer in Shaq Edwards.
Rider managed to sweep the Bobcats this season for its first two wins over Quinnipiac in program history. Stella Johnson scored 25 or more points in both of the Broncs’ victories.
The Bobcats are nowhere near the team that dominated the MAAC for the last few seasons, but should they advance, they are ready to make noise.
Rider’s likely finals matchup: Marist Red Foxes
Simply put, the Red Foxes can play the game of basketball.
Marist matched Rider’s 18-2 MAAC record, though the Broncs managed to sweep their season series against Fairfield, while Marist dropped a game to the Stags, giving way for Rider to win the MAAC regular-season title.
If this championship were to take place, it would be an absolute slugfest between the duos of Stella and Amari Johnson for Rider and All-MAAC First Team members Rebekah Hand and Alana Gilmer. Outside of that battle, the matchup of the Red Foxes’ Grace Vander Weide, an All-MAAC Second Team selection, and the Broncs’ Favre will likely be the difference maker in what would be a great championship match.
Game times and where to watch
Rider’s quarterfinal matchup with Niagara on March 11 will be broadcast on ESPN3, scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
Should the Broncs defeat Niagara, their semifinal game will be scheduled to take place on March 13 at 11 a.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN3.
If Rider reaches the finals, the MAAC tournament women’s championship game is scheduled to take place on March 14 at 11 a.m. and will be broadcast on ESPNU.