Matt Lopez dominated Manhattan with 27 points and 10 rebounds as Rider defeated Jaspers in overtime for second time in three weeks, earning season sweep. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)
Just 30 minutes away from Six Flags Great Adventure, what was billed as a battle of two teams at the top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings became a roller coaster filled with more twists and turns than both Nitro and El Toro combined. And if that wasn't enough, 40 minutes still did not decide the outcome.
What did, though, was the performance of a seven-foot center who not only posed a matchup problem for the reigning MAAC champions, but proved to have a giant impact on the scoreboard to match his stature.
Behind a career-high 27 points from Matt Lopez, who only managed 11 against Manhattan at Draddy Gymnasium three weeks ago, Rider (16-9, 10-4 MAAC) was able to salvage a crucial game against the Jaspers, (12-11, 9-5) erasing a 10-point deficit to prevail in overtime at a sold-out Alumni Gymnasium by the final of 85-77, sweeping Manhattan to gain a pivotal head-to-head tiebreaker in the league standings.
"He's just coming into his own," Broncs coach Kevin Baggett said of Lopez, who also added 10 rebounds to his point total. "He deserves everything that he's gotten. He's been our most consistent player all year long, and I couldn't be happier for him."
Lopez set the tone early with nine points in the first six minutes as Rider, three days removed from needing overtime to outlast a scrappy Fairfield team, dominated the opening minutes, making 11 of their first 14 shots to take a 25-10 lead with 12:39 remaining before halftime. To Manhattan's credit, though, the Jaspers fought back with their patented press defense, using stops and missed free throws by Rider; who shot 16-of-32 at the free throw line for the game, to briefly pull ahead in the latter stages of the opening stanza before the two sides went to the intermission tied at 37.
After trading baskets for the first several minutes following the halftime period, Manhattan went on a 16-6 run, capped off by a Rich Williams three-pointer with 11:27 left in regulation that gave the Jaspers their largest lead of the afternoon at 60-50. But just as they did three weeks ago in Riverdale, Rider surged right back with an 18-7 spurt of their own to pull ahead with 3:56 to play in the second half, as Zedric Sadler's baseline jumper gave the Broncs a 68-67 advantage.
"We recognize that basketball is a game of runs," Lopez said of Rider's mindset when Manhattan opened up their double-digit lead. "The one time we were down by ten, we came into the huddle, and we said 'Hey, let's buckle down, let's get these stops,' and the next media break, we were down by four. It's a slow climb back in."
Following Sadler's basket, Manhattan scored four straight points to retake the lead, only for Lopez to bring Rider within one. Leading 71-70, RaShawn Stores had a chance to extend the Jasper lead to three at the foul line, but he only made one of two free throws. Teddy Okereafor responded at the other end with two foul shots for Rider, who rejected Manhattan's chance to win at the buzzer with a Lopez block on Emmy Andujar, who led the Jaspers with 19 points in the losing effort.
Lopez started the extra session the same way he started the first half, establishing his presence early and often by scoring the first four points of the overtime period. A Zane Waterman free throw brought the Jaspers within three, but Jimmie Taylor answered back with a three from the left wing that extended Rider's advantage to six points at 79-73, ultimately sealing the game as Manhattan was unable to hit clutch shots when it counted, both from the field and at the foul line.
"Give them credit for their preparation and the way they played us," Steve Masiello conceded after Rider handed the coach his first career loss in the state of New Jersey, and dropped the Jaspers into a tie for third with Monmouth in the MAAC standings. "If there is a third time, I'm sure we'll adjust. That's what happens when good teams play good teams."
In addition to Andujar, Shane Richards posted 18 points for Manhattan, while Ashton Pankey's 16 points and 12 rebounds were good enough for his second double-double of the season. Across the floor, Teddy Okereafor chipped in for Rider with 16 points and six assists, but the unquestioned star of the show was the man in the middle, who posted his second straight double-double after erupting for 20 points and 19 rebounds against Fairfield on Thursday.
"He's certainly been the MVP of this team," Baggett said, praising Lopez. "We rely on him a great deal, and he's certainly a first team all-conference (player). My votes would go to him, not being biased as a coach, look what we're doing with him. I wish I had him another four more years, trust me."