Friday, February 15, 2013

Rider Women Playing Meaningful February Games

Last season looked like the one in which the Rider women's basketball team would finally turn its program around.

The fuel for that optimism was an 8-3 start against non-conference opponents, the Broncs' best start to a season since 1982-83.

And, then, as if Rider couldn't stand prosperity, things started going the wrong direction.

Ali Heller, one of the league's best long-range shooters, suffered a career-ending knee injury in the Broncs' 17th game of the season. Two games later, the team's other starting guard and second-leading scorer, Sironda Chambers, was out for the remainder of the season to straighten out her academics. Its best inside player, center Caitlin Bopp, was bothered by nagging knee issues for much of the season and its best player, then-sophomore MyNeshia McKenzie, played with the inconsistency of youth and lost her starting job for six games.

It all led to a 3-15 MAAC record after that 8-3 beginning and yet another last-place finish for the Broncs.

It was far too easy, though, to chalk 2011-12 up as "typical" Rider, because there's nothing typical about losing key players and battling through injuries and an academic loss.

But, it meant the the program's turnaround got delayed by a year.

Finally healthy and with a playing group that goes 10 deep with the requisite upper-class court smarts (five of the top 10 players are seniors and juniors), Rider is currently 7-6 in conference play and 12-12 overall. The conference record already matches the program's best (7-11 in 2008-09) of the past 13 seasons. Only a 10-8 finish in 1999-00 is better since Rider joined the conference in 1997-98.

And, Rider has never finished with a better-than-.500 overall record in all its time in the MAAC.

That could change this year, and what a change it would be.

How difficult had things been for the school's women's team?

In scientific terms, for every action there's a reaction.

Over the past 12 years, basically, the reaction to the "action" that has been the conference's domination by Marist has been Rider.

While Marist has all but clinched its 10th straight regular-season title, Rider has been at the other end of the MAAC standings for all of that time and then some.

Prior to this year, Rider has finished in last place seven times in the past 12 seasons, in ninth three times and in eighth twice. Over those past 12 seasons, Rider had a 44-172 conference record, the worst of any of the 10 league members.

The Broncs, though, have a legitimate chance to finish as high as third place this season. They're 7-6, tied for fourth, and trail third-place Iona (8-5) by a single game in the conference standings.

The sure sign of a decent team is that it can win when it doesn't play at its best, and Rider got one Friday night, 73-61, at Siena without playing anywhere near its capabilities.

But the Broncs did everything necessary down the stretch, pulling away from a three-point advantage with 13:30 remaining by limiting the Saints to 4-of-18 shooting after that. For the game, Rider couldn't have played much better defense, holding Siena to a game-long shooting percentage of just 27.1 percent.

Observers, though, could almost see this type of success coming for the Broncs. The talent was in place. It all just needed to stay healthy, stay on the court and, maybe, mature just a little more.

Chambers has become one of the league's better guards (she had 23 points against Siena) and is one of the league's few players capable of creating offense on her own, either from the perimeter or with a quick first step to the basket. Bopp is a superior interior defender, a relentless rebounder (10 vs. Siena) and more proficient on the offensive end than in past years. And, the program has the requisite standout in McKenzie, who entered Friday's game as the league's second-best rebounder (9.6) and was fifth in scoring (13.8).

"This year we've got a group that really `gets' it," said coach Lynn Milligan. "We're still having some inconsistencies as any .500 team has ... when you're .500 it means you're good some nights and not so good on other nights.

"But I've been telling the girls that all the work they've put in is to get them ready to do something in February and March. All I know is that it feels good, finally, to still be playing meaningful games in mid-February."

Meaningful games, indeed. With five regular-season contests left, they're all meaningful now for Rider as it tries for its best MAAC record since joining the league.

"The kids are a little older ... we've got a veteran core," added Milligan. "These kids were ready to take that next step this season. Our players have been through a lot. A lot of them have been with me the last four years, and, now, they're ready to play important games in February."

Against Siena, the Broncs also showed the resiliency of a mature team. Six days earlier, in its last game, Rider lost to Iona by 30 points, 88-58.

"This was a big bounce-back game for us," admitted Milligan. "This was a big test for us."

And, Rider bounced back in a big way, running out to a 21-9 lead in the game's first eight minutes and, then, never allowing Siena to get closer than three again afterwards.

"Our situation (an above-.500 conference record) makes things a little more intense," added Milligan. "But, we stress all year that you want to play for a banner."

Rider might not get a regular-season banner this year, but it appears as capable as anyone of pulling off the usually unthinkable upset ... beating Marist in the league's post-season tournament.

And, if nothing else, Rider is still playing meaningful games in the second half of February, something it hadn't done in many, many years.

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