Friday, February 7, 2014

Rider Women Look Ahead After Major Upset Of Iona

After her team's home game against Iona Thursday night, Rider women's coach Lynn Milligan walked into her team's locker room and saw a single word written in large letters on a chalk board.

The word was "Niagara," the Broncs' next opponent.

Coaches always tell players to put a just-concluded game behind them, that there's little time to dwell on what's in the past. One game is over, time to move on to what's next.

But no one would have blamed Milligan's team had it basked a little in what, for it, has been a very rare limelight.

And, it gets no brighter than the one the Broncs earned Thursday night with their 92-90 overtime victory over the Gaels in what can easily be considered to be the upset of the current MAAC women's season.

Rider entered play with a .500 record in conference play, while Iona was a perfect 12-0, a record that included an earlier victory over Marist, the conference's dominant team for the past decade.

Additionally, the Gaels were trying to add to an 18-game overall winning streak that was the fourth-longest active streak nationally.

But all of that ended Thursday as the Broncs continued adhering to all the lessons Milligan and her staff have been preaching about since she took over the program at the start of the 2007-08 season.

Of course it didn't hurt to get a singular performance from 6-foot-0 senior standout MyNeshia McKenzie, who had a monster 37-point, 19-rebound stat line while playing the game's entire 45 minutes.

Her point total matched the program's single-game best while her rebounding total elevated her to the top of the school's career rebounding list.

McKenzie's 1,035 career rebounds through Thursday's game. She is just the 12th player in MAAC history to surpass 1,000 career rebounds.

"It was really a special night for us," said Milligan, in a phone interview Friday morning. "Our team just followed MyNeshia's lead and fed off what she was doing. It was one of those nights that our team was not going to be denied."

Rider, for sure, had been denied plenty not only since joining the MAAC for the 1997-98 season, but even before then.

The program has not had an over-.500 winning percentage overall since the 1994-95 season, and has only been above .500 in MAAC play twice, 10-8 last season and 10-8 in the 1999-00 season.

From the start of the 2000-01 season through 2011-12, the Broncs had finished dead last in the MAAC standings seven times in 12 seasons, ninth three times and eighth twice. Its cumulative record in those 12 years was 44-172 in conference play. No MAAC team had a worse record over that stretch.

The turnaround began last season when the program finished 10-8 in league play and 15-15 overall and continued along that same path this year, 6-6 and 10-11 prior to Thursday's game.

Still, there was no singular accomplishment close to beating a team of Iona's caliber.

So, what does a win like that do for Rider?

"I think it's something we don't know yet," said Milligan. "I know it's a win our kids will remember and, maybe, a couple of months from now I'll recall fondly, too.

"We just need to continue to progress. We're trying to peak at the right time. We've got some tough games remaining, but we're starting to see things come together.

"The kids are starting to see their hard work pay off. My top two assistants (Pam Durkin and John Miller) have been with me here from Day 1. The kids are confident in us as a staff. We've had to work on changing an attitude here.

"The kids have worked hard and have done things the right way, and it's starting to show that when you do those things you can have results like this."

The game was the opener of a double-header that featured a Rider men's game afterwards.

"We had several hundred fans in the gym when our game started and by halftime the place was nearly full," added Milligan. "We got great support. It was nice that we had so many people there cheering us on down the stretch."

That, surely, didn't hurt.

"It was like a heavyweight fight ... they punched us, we punched back ... we just traded punches the whole night," said Milligan. "But we were very resilient."

Rider had to be, particularly at the end of regulation when Iona's Aleesha Powell's three-pointer with 27 seconds remaining erased the Broncs' 3-point lead and sent the contest into overtime.

And, then, the Broncs' needed a late bucket in the overtime session by McKenzie to stretch a one-point lead into a three-point advantage. Those were necessary points since, when Shereen Lightbourne was fouled with three-tenths of a second remaining, some premature celebration by the winners incurred a technical foul.

Iona's Haley D'Angelo made both free throws to cut the winners' lead to one, but Lightbourne followed by making a foul shot to push the lead back to two and the visitors didn't have enough time to make a play after that.

"We told the kids that we could celebrate this win until 1 p.m. (Friday) and, then, it was time to get back in the weight room, followed by practice, and time to get back to work," added Milligan. "There isn't time for a day off. We've got a game on Sunday."

Milligan, though, knew already that the lesson about moving on had already been well-learned by her team.

The message on the team's chalk board that read, simply, "Niagara," was proof of that.

Rider might have just turned in the upset of the MAAC season and, probablly, the biggest win since joining the conference 17 years ago.

But that very simple message on the post-game chalk board spoke volumes about Rider's desire to do even more this season.

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