By Carolo Pascale
After senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. worked his magic against the Iona Gaels on Jan. 15, once again draining a game winning shot against them, there has been nothing but great vibes and success for this never-say-die Broncs squad. After Rider’s most recent game, a tense and hard-fought 78-69 win in overtime against Fairfield on Jan. 29, the Broncs have won five straight and sit at second place in the conference with nine games remaining before heading to Atlantic City, New Jersey for this seasons Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament.
Now past the midway point of their MAAC games, the Broncs are 8-3 in conference play and have thrived in many key areas. But there is still more to be desired, especially if they want to pass Siena for the No. 1 seed in the conference.
Murray and Mervin
If you’re looking for what’s gone well for the team this year, look no further than Murray and senior forward Mervin James. The former Pebblebrook high school teammates have taken it to another level this season, with both having All-MAAC years that have solidified Rider as a force.
Starting with Murray, he’s played as advertised as a certified All-MAAC guard, and is even making a case for the player of the year award. The “Iona Killer,” as James calls him, has averaged 14.9 points per game against MAAC opponents, while averaging 16.5 on the entire season, the third most points of any player in the conference at this point in the season.
“He always wants the big shot, and even if he misses he’s going to want it again,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett.
Murray’s shooting at an impressive 42.1% clip from the field, while knocking down 36.5% of his three-point attempts. There’s only one other Bronc that has a higher percentage than him, that being sophomore guard Adetokunbo Bakare, who’s been a revelation for the Broncs from behind the arc as of late. The sophomore has made 11-of-18 threes this year for an outstanding 61.1% from long range.
Also of note for Murray, he leads the team in minutes and is second in the league in that category, having already tied his 28 steals from last season in 13 less games played.
“I’ll be in the gym every day. Coach will tell you, you’ll see me every day,” said Murray.
As for James, he’s about to find himself with a nickname as well, becoming this squad’s “Mr. Consistent.”
In MAAC play, James has been nothing short of dominant and determined. He’s second on the Broncs in points per game against conference opponents with 14.1, having only scored less than 12 points once in MAAC Play, and averaging 13.2 points on the season. He also leads the team in blocks with 11 and has been the Broncs best board snatcher by a wide margin, sitting fifth in the conference in rebounds with 6.9 per game.
“He just goes out and plays on his strengths. He’s being aggressive around the basket and has taken whatever the defense has given him. He’s consistent in practice, in the games and off the court as well,” said Baggett.
On top of that, James has been shooting well this year, sitting at 49% so far. But besides his shooting, the consistency in conference play has really shown that James is having a fantastic season. With Murray and James being as good as they have been, it has also allowed players like Bakare, junior forward Tariq Ingraham and senior guard Allen Betrand to thrive when the Broncs needed some more scoring support. “When everybody clicks like we did in last year’s MAAC Tournament, when everybody’s on the same page, we’re going to be a problem,” said James.
Something about threes
Despite the great play from Murray, James and most of the Broncs, there is still something that’s keeping this team from reaching its full potential: defending and making threes of their own.
Since the beginning of the season, both of these problems have stood out as something that needs to be fixed within the Broncs system. But even though they’ve passed the halfway mark, neither problem has been fully rectified.
Out of all Division I programs, Rider ranks 249th out of 352 teams in three point percentage against, allowing teams to make 34.7% of their attempts. They have recently been better in this category and are trending in a better direction, but still sit lower than seven of their fellow MAAC members. On top of that, they have also had the most threes attempted on them in the conference, with nearly 500 attempts from opposing teams coming from deep.
“Once we figure it out, then we’re fine. But we gotta figure it out a little sooner,” said Baggett.
Alongside the three-point defense being a problem, Rider’s own three-point attack has been nearly non-existent at times this year. It’s been a struggle for the Broncs to sink the rock from behind the arc, making just 31.9% of their attempts, which puts them ninth in the conference. Through 20 games, the Broncs have only made 4.8 threes per game and 96 total three-pointers, which is by far the lowest in the conference.
Baggett was asked about the lack of three point shooting after a Jan. 2 61-59 loss against Niagara, with him saying “Our game plan was not to shoot them.”
Even though Baggett said that, the Broncs have still attempted an average of 12.7 three-point attempts per game against MAAC opponents. They have been consistent at trying the three, but have to improve on making them if they want to consider themselves the best team in the conference.
With nine games left in the season, the Broncs have nearly put all the pieces together to be a true contender for a MAAC title this year, but still can work on some lingering problems that need to be worked out as March inches closer and closer.
Rider will look to continue its winning ways back at Alumni Gym against the Saint Peter’s Peacocks at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3. The chase for six straight wins will be streamed on ESPN3.