By Mel Greenberg
LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. – Several months ago the only excitement Rider seemed headed to enjoy this time of year was to be involved in helping to host one of the four NCAA women’s basketball tournament Sweet 16 regionals a few miles down the road at Sun Bank Arena in Trenton.
But that expected thrill was taken away by the NCAA, which withdrew the site and moved in to Bridgeport, Conn. as punishment for the state of New Jersey enacting legislation allowing sports betting on collegiate games. It’s the same penalty that also yanked Montclair State from hosting early action in the NCAA Division III women’s tournament after going unbeaten and winning the NJAC.
Montclair (28-0), ranked fifth in Division III, won Friday night in the first round and is at Lebanon Valley Saturday night, breaking records set during the AIAW era when future Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski was lighting up the scoreboards.
Anyhow, that was then, this is now in terms of Rider, which has decided that being on the floor this time of year playing key games is actually much more fun than sitting in the stands.
In that regard the Broncs beat Siena 72-52 here at home in Alumni Gymnasium Friday night in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Association game that ensured Rider (15-13, 10-7 MAAC) will finish the regular season with its first women’s basketball winning record since 1999-2000.
MyNeshia McKenzie, a graduate of Springfield, Delco, in the Philadelphia suburbs had 21 points and 11 rebounds for Rider while Emily Fazzini and Sironda Chambers each scored 14 points against the Saints (11-17, 7-10), who are under first-year coach Ali Jaques, the former associate head coach to Father Judge graduate Joe McKeown at Northwestern and previously George Washington.
The win also gave the Broncs a sweep of Siena, which is 29-6 in the series between the two schools. Rider also moved all alone in fourth place heading into Sunday’s final when Iona visits. Niagara, which was tied with the Broncs lost at home to Canisius.
The 10 conference wins are also the most since 1999-2000 and the total also is part of a reversal from early in the season when Rider lost several close games, though the Broncs did beat Army and won at Pittsburgh, coached by former Rider coach Agnus Berenato, the sister of Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade.
“The biggest change is the team chemistry and we’re all willing to buy into the system,” McKenzie said after the game. “We have a good veteran squad now and the younger ones are buying into the system as well.”
Rider is coached by alum and former Saint Joseph’s assistant Lynn Milligan, who is in her sixth season since leaving the Hawks. Pam Durkin, another former Rider star, is on her staff as is former Saint Joseph’s player Whitney Ffrench.
“Besides our fouling, I thought or defensive effort was terrific once we took care of a rebounding issue early in the first half,” Milligan said of Friday’s action here.
“I was very happy. It was something we practiced all week.”
As for the chance to play for a high seed in the conference tournament after past seasons of struggles, Milligan said, “It’s a whole different world.
“These kids are thriving on it. This veteran group, our seniors deserve it and they worked their butts off to get here. So I’m happy for them,” she added.
“They’re playing meaningful games in (late February, early March) and we’re trying to put ourselves in the most successful situation for the MAAC tournament next week and we still have a chance to maneuver for seeding,” she said.
Dior Brown scored nine points off the bench, causing Milligan to praise her reserves, saying, “When everyone steps up we become a much better team.”
Beating perennial MAAC champ Marist might be too much to hope for, but a good run could put the Broncs in the WNIT.
“We’re a confident group, we believe in one another,” Milligan said. “A lot of teams don’t practice a lot this time of year – we’re busting it in practice. We’re getting after it. We go short and we go hard. So we’re trying to sustain game mode every day.
“This senior group is on a mission right now – every game it seem we’re getting something no one’s ever done, so I’m hanging a carrot in front of them,” Milligan said with a smile. “Today was 10 (conference) wins. No one’s every gotten 11 so that’s something for Sunday.”