Daniel Stewart's 25 points and 9 rebounds helped Rider coast to 71-60 victory over Monmouth in opening round of MAAC tournament. (Photo courtesy of Rider University)
As cliched as it may sound, basketball in March ultimately comes down to two words: Survive and advance.
What's more than that, when a team has a senior determined to live to fight another day, "survive and advance" becomes more a mantra for everyday life than it does a mere rally cry to take one game at a time, the case of Rider's Daniel Stewart serving as Exhibit A.
The Philadelphian, whose final regular season came to a disappointing end when his Broncs fell from the No. 5 seed and a first-round bye to the No. 8 and a 5 p.m. Thursday night opening round game in the span of several days, embodied the player who was not ready to give in, not on this night, as his 25-point, 9-rebound effort was enough to lift Rider (14-16) to a 71-60 victory over in-state rival Monmouth, (11-21) their third in as many attempts this season against King Rice's Hawks.
"We made some winning plays," Broncs head coach Kevin Baggett said after the game, one in which his team's transition defense was the other star of the show besides Stewart, turning 21 Monmouth turnovers into 30 Rider points, including 17 points off 12 miscues in the second half. "That's something we haven't done of late. I'm really proud of our guys. We got down a little bit and everybody stayed together."
It wasn't easy for the Broncs, who endured a game of runs through most of the night, first surrendering six straight points to Monmouth to start the game, then going on a 13-2 run to take a 13-8 advantage seven minutes into the opening half. Following a period in which both teams traded baskets, the Hawks used an 11-3 spurt to regain the lead, only to give it up when Rider scored twelve unanswered points to take a 33-25 cushion into the locker room.
Monmouth responded with a 21-5 run over the first 9:37 of the second half to take their largest lead of the night at 46-38, only to lose control of the ball in the next four minutes, as five turnovers turned the tide in a 17-2 Rider outburst. The Hawks would match Rider on baskets to keep the Broncs' edge at seven points, but from there, it was Stewart who seized control down the stretch, scoring seven of Rider's final nine points en route to his highest point total since posting 28 on January 16th against Saint Peter's.
With the win, Rider, who also got 13 points from Anthony Myles and 12 from freshman guard Jimmie Taylor, advances to the quarterfinals on Saturday to take on reigning champion Iona, against whom they nearly erased a 14-point deficit in the final 3:59 on February 21st at Alumni Gym, while Monmouth brings down the curtain on their maiden voyage in the MAAC with no regrets, their heads held high after a season in which a young roster gained critical experience in the midst of earning a valuable reputation as a scrappy, resilient foe.
"These guys gave us everything they had for the whole season," said Hawks head coach King Rice. "I think we learned some valuable lessons. I'm proud of this group, I love our kids, and we're going to work to get better."