By Carolo Pascale and Matthew LoPuzzo
SEVEN games. Seven wins. The No. 1 seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). That’s what these Broncs have been up to. Rider has been cooking with kerosene, pushing its winning streak to seven with a dominating 82-61 win against Saint Peter’s on Feb. 3 and another double-digit, 67-56 win against Manhattan on Feb. 5
First half masterclass
With the reigning MAAC Champion Saint Peter’s Peacocks strutting into town on Greek Night, the Broncs knew they had to ruffle some feathers and put on a show, doing so with a dominant and electrifying first half that saw Rider score 46 points en route to a 82-61 victory, extending the winning streak to six games.
“I thought it was a great job from start to finish. I thought our guys defended their behinds off today,” said Head Coach Kevin Baggett.
It was a committee affair in the scoring department for the Broncs, with five players breaking double-digit points, three of them being starters. Per usual, senior guard Dwight Murray Jr. led the way with 15 points in another solid performance, while both senior forward Mervin James and sophomore guard Adetokunbo Bakare scored 11. Senior guard Allen Powell and graduate student forward Ajiri Ogemuno-Johnson each collected 10 points.
The excellent first half was powered by two main factors: a relentless and smothering defense paired with a ball-moving and sharpshooting offense.
The defense has been getting increasingly stronger as of late, and the first half was where it all seemed to come together. The Broncs were all over the Peacocks from tip off, which forced 10 turnovers and three steals in just the first half alone. Rider was able to force Saint Peter’s into double or even triple coverage consistently, pushing the Peacocks to use almost the entire shot clock on every possession and take difficult shots.
“There was more energy during the warm ups. Everyone was talking more,” said Murray. “We were very vocal on defense today. I feel like that was why we were more energized in the first half.”
The entire team was superb defensively, but a three-guard combo of Murray, Bakare and junior guard Corey McKeithan played a huge role in keeping the Peacocks from scoring points. The trio was able to completely eliminate the Peacocks perimeter shooters and their mid-range game, with Saint Peter’s shooting just 5-for-21 from the field and 2-for-10 from the three.
Alongside the defense, the offense was kicked into high gear with the Broncs shooting an incredible 60.9% from the field and a perfect 4-for-4 from behind the arc. Rider’s regulars made their usual contributions, while being helped by 23 bench points, something Rider hasn’t had for most of this year. Both McKeithan and Bakare were stellar off the bench, with McKeithan having a breakout game in terms of offensive prowess.
McKeithan played with a confidence that hasn’t been seen this year, driving hard to the net, making great passes, and even throwing down a dunk with the and-one to boot. He finished with eight points.
“It’s been tough for me from the beginning of the season. I was just in my head a lot, but coach preached to me and told me I got this and I’m getting better,” said McKeithan.
The Broncs finished the game shooting 54.2% from the field, with a season high 66.7% from the three. It’s only the second time that the Broncs have shot over 45% from the three in a game this year, the only other time coming in the season opener against Providence.
The Broncs stretched their winning streak to seven after a 67-56 win over the Manhattan Jaspers Sunday, with the pillars of the Broncs keeping stable and a sprinkle of help from the supporting cast.
“This group is together more than any other team I’ve ever had,” said Baggett after clinching Rider’s 10th MAAC win of the season.
Starting off the same way as they did last time they played the Jaspers, the Broncs came out the gate slow with both teams shooting 2-for-8 to start off the game.
One of the main adjustments the Broncs made was the containment of St. John’s transfer Josh Roberts, who dropped 18 points and six rebounds last time matching up against the Broncs. Coming off a 17 rebound performance against Siena, Roberts put up 14 points and five rebounds.
“We went to the classroom with these guys,” said Baggett about making changes from the previous matchup against the Jaspers in late January.
James got off to a quick start with four points, courtesy of mean low post bullying, while junior forward Nehemiah Benson contributed with a soaring skyhook over the defense.
The Broncs were able to get a big game from Ogemuno-Johnson, started by Murray giving a Manhattan defender some free salsa dancing lessons with some slick dribbling, then dishing the ball to Ogemuno-Johnson, leading to free throws.
Ogemuno-Johnson converted an and-one to give the Broncs a 14-point lead heading into the locker room. In just eight minutes, he would have eight points and six rebounds going into halftime.
“When I come off the bench, I’m already set in. I’m ready to go,” said Ogemuno-Johnson on how he’s felt being the sixth man.
The second half commenced with a layup from Powell at the rim who finished the game with seven points. Then, James gave everyone in Riverdale, New York, overpowering a helpless Manhattan defender, finishing strong and giving the Broncs a 19-point lead.
The Jaspers kept on fighting to cut the lead to single digits with multiple miscommunications on the Broncs’ behalf on defense. The lead was diminished to seven before Powell made a tough shot in the face of Manhattan guard Samir Stewart.
Ogemuno-Johnson kept soaring for rebounds and kept capitalizing, finishing the game with 14 points and 11 rebounds. The Broncs lead was cut down to four, but efforts from graduate student Zahrion Blue, Murray and James, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, sealed the game for the Broncs.
With the win over the Jaspers, the Broncs now hold sole possession of first place in the conference, while Iona and Siena sit at the two and three spot. This puts Rider in the driver seat as they continue to prove they are a true contender for a MAAC title.
The Broncs will be looking to extend their winning streak to eight games on national television against Fairfield on Feb. 10 once again in the Broncs’ Zoo. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. on ESPNU.