By Brandon Scalea (@brandonscalea)
LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ — Any college basketball fan who knows the Rider-Monmouth rivalry well could have told you the kind of game fans were going to see Monday night in Alumni Gym.
It didn't matter where the Hawks were in the standings, nor did it matter how shorthanded the Broncs were. It was a dogfight; and for the third straight season, Monmouth escaped Rider’s Lawrenceville campus breathing sighs of relief and feeling thankful Justin Robinson is on the team.
In another wild, back-and-forth contest, the first-place Hawks earned their 20th win for the second straight year in a 74-69 decision, the first time in program history they’ve done that. It was also their tenth straight win dating back to a January 2 loss at Saint Peter’s that followed a New Year’s Eve loss to the Broncs in West Long Branch. At that point, Monmouth fans were almost ready to hit the panic button, but the team has since proven convincingly that the MAAC is theirs to lose.
With 2:39 left in regulation, Rider sophomore Kealen Washington-Ives lifted the Broncs (13-12, 6-8 MAAC) ahead with a pair of free throws before senior Kahlil Thomas nailed a jumper to make it 69-66 with 1:44 left. It was Rider’s largest lead of the contest since going up 4-1 in the opening moments. But Robinson proved yet again to be the villain, as he willed the Hawks to eight straight points and handed another heartbreaking loss to Rider fans.
Despite the setback, head coach Kevin Baggett was much happier with his team’s effort in the game than he was in a 19-point loss to Iona on Friday.
“I thought the team that showed up tonight for us was the team that normally shows up,” he said. “Some poor execution down the stretch, some poor shots, but all in all, if we play like this, we’ll be fine. I expect to compete with the Monmouth’s and the guys at the top of this league.”
Trailing 69-68 with under a minute left, Robinson drove to the basket, tucked the ball in like the high school football player he once was, and put it off glass and in. Down at the other end, senior Jimmie Taylor had a fantastic look to give Rider the lead right back, but it rimmed out. Thomas just missed getting a hand on it for a potential putback. Monmouth (20-5, 12-2 MAAC) would then drain four straight free throws to put the game away.
The game’s ending sequence was just a small portion of a wild second half where Rider had an answer for seemingly everything Monmouth threw at it. The Broncs, playing without freshman sensation Stevie Jordan for the second straight game as a result of suspension for violating team rules, had to be careful to stay out of foul trouble. After Rider tied the game at 50, Robinson proceeded to bang two consecutive bombs to give the Hawks a 56-50 lead. It looked like that might be the point where the visitors pulled away.
Instead, Taylor hit two straight threes at the other end, tying the game at 56 and sending the engaged sellout crowd into an absolute frenzy.
Washington-Ives had arguably his best game in a Rider uniform, notching his first career double-double with 11 points, 10 assists and no turnovers.
“I felt like, with Stevie out, I had to step up,” Washington-Ives said. “I felt like I didn’t do enough for Coach in the Iona game, so I wanted to bring the energy tonight.”
Graduate forward Norville Carey had a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds. For Monmouth, reigning MAAC Player of the Year Robinson had 25 points on 7-for-16 shooting from the field. In the postgame press conference, Baggett joked that he’s happy to see Robinson graduate. Je’lon Hornbeak also had 15 points for the Hawks on a night where Monmouth coach King Rice had nothing but praise for the Broncs after the game, and said his team is lucky to escape with a win.
“I think Kevin Baggett is as good of a coach as anyone, and we got some really good ones in this league,” Rice said. “To have the game they had the other night, to be down to seven or eight guys, and we’re coming into your building after you beat us on our court and to play us where we really, really need some breaks to go our way, I can’t say enough about the job Kevin Baggett does.”
It was Monmouth’s third straight wild win in Alumni Gym. In 2015, the Hawks hung on to beat Rider, 55-54. In last year’s classic, an ESPNU game, Robinson capped a late 13-point comeback with a huge three to give Monmouth a 79-78 win.
The Hawks will hit the road for their next contest, facing Manhattan on Friday, while the Broncs remain home for the weekend, hosting Quinnipiac on Saturday. Tipoff is slated for 2 p.m.