Resilient Rider Rebounds
The 2011-12 Rider University men's basketball season was a lesson in dealing with and overcoming adversity. If anything, the Broncs were resilient.
"The guys hung together this year," said Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey. "It could have been a 5-25 season but we stayed together and found a way to fight right to the finish line."
The Broncs were picked to finish fourth in the ten-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and despite suspensions, injuries, eligibility issues and a tough non-conference schedule, Rider still managed to finish in the top half of the league.
The struggles began before the first ball was even tipped up, when two key players were missing from the line up and a third was still recovering from off-season surgery.
Veteran point guard Jon Thompson was serving a suspension carried over from last season and 6'9" Canadian freshman Junior Fortunat was waiting to be cleared by the NCAA. On top of that, Preseason First Team All-MAAC forward Novar Gadson had yet to fully recover from microfracture surgery.
After graduating three players who made up the winningest group to ever play at Rider (program record 82 wins in four years), including an All-MAAC point guard who graduated 10th in career scoring and sixth in career assists and an All-MAAC forward who left Rider fifth in career rebounds and 14th in career points, the Broncs took on a daunting non-conference schedule.
Before the New Year rolled around the Broncs had already played nine teams that would go on to play in a national postseason tournament this year.
Combine the tough schedule, the injuries, the suspensions and the eligibility issues and you get one of the worst starts in program history, 1-10.
Some teams would have packed it in right there, but not Rider. "I still believe that going forward good things are going to happen for this team," Dempsey said at the time. "We're going to try to write a script of how we came back from 1-10 to salvage our season."
The Broncs got into the Christmas spirit with a pair of wins on the road, and Coach Dempsey gained his 100th Rider win. It will go down in Rider annals as the fastest to 100, but for Coach Dempsey, it must have seemed like an eternity. The 100 wins in 176 games is the fastest any head coach has ever gotten to 100 victories at Rider. The victory snapped a six-game losing streak. "I was starting to wonder if my career was going to end at 99," Dempsey joked after the win.
The Broncs ushered in the New Year with MAAC victories at Manhattan and at Saint Peter's sandwiched around a home victory over Marist, and 2012 provided the promise of a new year. "There is progress," Dempsey said after the win at Saint Peter's. "We're going in the right direction."
Reality reared its ugly head with three straight losses on the road, but once again Rider's resilience returned, as the Broncs won three straight games in Alumni Gymnasium, over Canisius, Saint Peter's and Siena, by a combined 70 points. The win over Siena marked the third time this season the Broncs faced a team that they had lost to earlier in the year, and for the third time the Broncs avenged the loss. "We have a saying in our program, 'no sweeps,' and it was written on the board before the game," Dempsey said.
Eight wins in 12 games and the Broncs had momentum heading into February.
After a loss at eventual champion Loyola, Rider defeated Niagara at home before making the annual trek to Western New York. The Broncs won at Canisius and were robbed of a win at Niagara when the referees, clock operator and instant replay operator all "failed to manage the game clock and replay system in the expected manner," according to the MAAC, starting a downward spiral that would last three games.
As postseason loomed over the horizon, the Broncs hosted two teams that were tied for second place in the final week of the regular season.
In front of a national audience, Rider defeated NCAA Tournament-bound Loyola and came back two days later and, again on the national stage, defeated Fairfield on Senior Day to finish in fifth place, marking the fifth straight year the Broncs finished in the top half of the conference.
"I think that it was important that we stood tall against two MAAC contenders and send a message that we still feel like we are a contender," Dempsey said.
In the MAAC Tournament, Rider's potential game-tying shot hit the backboard, the front of the rim, and fell out as the buzzer sounded, bringing an end to the season.
"We fought right to the end, which was indicative of our season," Dempsey said. "I think they (eventual MAAC runner-up Fairfield) probably thought they had us buried three different times, but we were resilient and we gave ourselves a chance right 'till the buzzer. I was proud of our effort."
Gadson scored 79 points in the last four games of the regular season, including 23 on Senior Day, to earn MAAC Player of the Week honors. He will now graduate 11th in career scoring (1,468) and ninth in career rebounds (726).
Penn enjoyed a career year with 371 points and 200 rebounds, earning MAAC Player of the Week and Rider Athlete of the Month honors. For his efforts he also earned a spot on the Second Team All-MAAC squad.
Jones made the most of his one season playing for the Broncs, leading the team with 402 points (13.4 ppg).
Noon was rewarded for three years of dedicated service as the team manager with a spot on the roster as a 'walk-on' and played in seven games, including a start on Senior Day, and scored a memorable three-point field goal in a MAAC win over Saint Peter's. Noon was also named to the MAAC All-Academic team.
The future is bright, with the return of eight letterwinners, including Thompson, who was second in the MAAC in assists and assist-turnover ratio, and Daniel Stewart, who was third in the MAAC in field goal percentage, eighth in rebounding, 13th in blocked shots and 22nd in scoring this year as a sophomore.
It is said that what does not kill you makes you stronger. If anything, the 2012-13 Broncs will be very strong.
2011-12 Bronc Bullets
*Brandon Penn earned Second Team All-MAAC
*Kevin Noon was named to the MAAC All-Academic Team
*Last week of the regular season Rider defeated the two teams that played in MAAC Title Game
*Novar Gadson graduates 9th in Rider career rebounds and 11th in Rider career scoring
*Broncs played 14 games on television this season, ESPN, ESPNU, ESPN3 and Comcast Network