By Jake Tiger
DESPITE an offense that has taken a giant leap as of late, Rider women’s basketball’s astronomically awful defense has prevented it from even reaching the same solar system as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s (MAAC) top teams.
The Broncs, now on a brutal, four-game losing streak, enter the latter half of MAAC play with heaps still to address.
“We’ve got to take this last month and find our balance. I mean, it’s as simple as that,” said Milligan. “I believe in these kids. I believe in how we’re doing things.”
Opposing offenses salivate when they see the Broncs on their schedule.
Rider’s defense is allowing a whopping 70.9 points per game this season, the most in the conference and 43rd most in the country, and that number has continued to trend upward.
“It’s just that defensive grit that we’re just consistently missing pieces of,” said Milligan. “It’s not for lack of effort. It’s not for lack of want. It’s not for a lack of awareness. I just think we’ve got to find that piece that kind of levels out our defense and offense.”
In their last three games, the Broncs have given up more than 90 points to opponents, including a 90-point meteor shower from Iona on Jan. 19 that was arguably the greatest team three-point shooting performance in NCAA history.
“We want to make [defense] one of our priorities and we know defense gets stops,” said junior guard Makayla Firebaugh. “Holding people to under 65 [points] is a goal of ours.”
After Rider’s 94-63 loss to Siena on Jan. 26, its average scoring margin dropped to -10.6, as they’ve now lost by 20 or more points eight times this season. Just over their four-game losing streak, the Broncs were outscored 241-315.
“I thought we’d be a little bit more balanced at both ends of the floor. I really did,” said Head Coach Lynn Milligan of her preseason expectations. “We do have some veteran players that have been through the league before, and kind of understand the grind of it, so I did think that we’d be a little bit more balanced than we are.”
While the Broncs’ persistent defensive woes have kept them out of the win-column, their offense has managed to find a sort of rhythm in recent showings, scoring more than 60 points in each of their last three games.
“I think our offense is growing every day,” said Milligan. “If the offense is at 75% and the defense is hovering around 50%, we need to get the defense to meet us at 75%.”
Firebaugh and junior forward Raphaela Toussaint have led the Broncs’ through their three-game scoring spike, with both players cracking double-digits in every game.
Graduate student guard Amanda Mobley has also continued to do a stellar job as Rider’s floor general, often being the catalyst behind many of Firebaugh and Toussaint’s baskets. This season, Mobley leads the MAAC in assists per game with 6.1 and total assists with 121.
“On offense, we’re on the same page, we’re clicking, we’re doing what we need to do,” said Milligan. “Defensively for some reason, we’re just not.”
An offensive leader like Mobley could be exactly what Rider needs on the defensive end, but it’s unclear who would be the player to step into that role.
“I think we’re almost there,” said junior guard Molly Lynch. “We just have to be locked in defensively and offensively. We pick up our defense when we get that flow on offense.”
At 2-9 in conference play, the Broncs sit at 10th in the MAAC standings, two games above 0-11 Saint Peter’s and one game below 3-8 Canisius.
Rider has nine games remaining before the MAAC Tournament on Mar. 7, and if the Broncs are able to go on run, they could find themselves toward the middle of the pack by March.
“Regardless of where we are in the standings and all that, we’re going to work our hardest, and be peaking at the right time and set ourselves up the best we can for March,” said Milligan.
Rider returns to the court on Feb. 6 when they visit third-place Quinnipiac for the first of two meetings this season. The game begins at 6 p.m. and will be streamed on ESPN3.