Women’s College Basketball
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Quarterfinals
#6 Rider University 63, #3 Fairfield University 56
SPRINGFIELD, Mass.—A Mason is known for working with bricks. Friday night, freshman Stephanie Mason (Jackson/Jackson Memorial) was shooting anything but bricks.
With the Broncs trailing 43-34, Mason drilled four field goals, all from three-point range in the final eight minutes as the Rider University women’s basketball team rallied for a come from behind 63-56 victory over the third seeded Fairfield University Stags in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament at the MassMutual Center.
“I’m extremely proud of my team,” said head coach Lynn Milligan. “The no quit attitude. I’m proud of what is pumping through their veins and it is a special thing to have that much intestinal fortitude when there is doubt in the gym.”
Hours before her 19th birthday, Mason celebrated early by finishing one off a career-high with 14 points and her third three-pointer with 4:24 left in the contest, gave Rider its first lead of the night, 47-45 and capped off a 10-0 Rider run.
“Fairfield came out with zone in the second half,” Milligan said. “We wanted to have two shooters on the floor and I was banking on someone to get hot and Steph did that. Steph isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. When she makes the first one, she will usually make the second, third and fourth.”
Mason hit a three-pointer, her fourth of the contest, with 3:35 left to give the Broncs a four-point lead, 50-46.
“Coach always says wait for your turn,” said Mason. “Tonight was my chance and I’m really proud that I was able to help extend the season for the seniors. I’m a shooter so whether I’m hitting or missing shots, I’m going to keep shooting it anyway.”
Leading 50-48, senior MyNeshia McKenzie (Springfield, Pa./Springfield (Delco)) hit a driving layup and a layup by junior Marritta Gillcrease (Pittsburgh, Pa./Perry Traditional Academy) gave the Broncs a 54-48 lead with 2:06 left in the game. Gillcrease finished with five points.
“With all of the injuries, our mentality has been the football adage, ‘next man up’,” Milligan said. “MyNeshia has done it all year and tonight it was also Steph’s turn to step up.”
“Steph is a great person all around,” said McKenzie who was named to the All-MAAC First Team for the second season in a row. “She never hangs her head low and tonight she stepped up and took a lot off my back.”
McKenzie finished with her 45th career ‘double-double’, scoring 28 points and adding 16 rebounds, while playing all 40 minutes for the second tournament game in a row. For the tournament, McKenzie is averaging 26.5 points and 13.5 rebounds and on the season, she is averaging 19.9 points and 11.3 rebounds while logging a conference leading 36.7 minutes per game.
The Rider career games leader with 121, McKenzie now has 1,613 career points, third best all-time at Rider and her 1,137 career rebounds are also a Rider record.
McKenzie scored 20 or more points for the 22nd time in her Rider career, 18 coming this season. McKenzie has scored 20 or more points four times in a row, in six of the last seven games and in eight of the last 10 contests. McKenzie started the 10-game scoring binge (21.6 points per game) with a Rider record 37 points against Iona College on February 6 as the Broncs snapped the Gaels 18-game winning streak with a 92-90 overtime victory in Alumni Gymnasium.
Rider went eight for nine from the free throw line in the final 1:16 of the game to clinch the victory and McKenzie was 12-14 from the charity stripe in the game.
Leading 28-24, Fairfield (20-10) opened the second half with a 9-1 run, holding the Broncs scoreless for the opening 4:11 of the period before a McKenzie free throw got Rider into the scoring column.
Trailing 41-30, Rider (15-16) cut the Stag lead to six (43-37) on a three-pointer by Mason with 8:22 left in the game and a driving layup by McKenzie again got the Broncs to within six (45-39) with 6:03 left.
Fairfield opened the game on an 11-0 run with four different Stags scoring and the defense of Fairfield held Rider without a point for the opening 6:16 as the Broncs began the game 0-10 from the field.
“We don’t hang our heads when we get down in a game,” said McKenzie. “We know how to stick together and fight back. We know there are no 20-point shots and that we needed to step up on defense to give ourselves a chance to fight back. Our stops on defense led our offense.”
Rider responded with a 5-0 run, two points each by McKenize and junior Lashay Banks (Philadelphia, Pa./Prep Charter), cutting the Stag lead to 11-5 with 12:00 left in the opening half. Banks finished with those two points in 20 minutes of play.
The Stags then went on a 5-0 run of their own, putting the Bronc deficit back to nine with 10:56 left in the opening half.
A 6-0 run, four points by McKenzie cut the Stag lead to 18-16 with 6:45 left in the first period.
The Stags rallied with a 7-0 run, opening up a 25-16 lead with 2:45 remaining in the half.
McKenzie scored four straight points for the Broncs, cutting the Stag lead back to four (26-22) with 1:36 left in half number one. McKenzie had 17 of Rider’s 24 points in the opening 20 minutes.
Fairfield went into intermission leading 28-24.
The Stags out-shot Rider 40 percent (18-45) to 37 percent (19-52).
Rider held a 33-30 rebounding advantage and the Broncs only committed six turnovers.
This was Rider’s sixth attempt to advance to the conference semifinals in its 17-year history in the MAAC. The Broncs lost in the quarterfinals in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005 and last season after entering the playoffs as the fourth seed.
“I don’t think we had unfinished business from last season,” Milligan said. “I just see this as an opportunity for a special group of players who continue to represent Rider University in the best way possible. And the support that we have had from our alumni has been great and that has really helped us to get to this level. All I want the team to do is make them proud and represent them in the best way possible. Coaching here is a blessing every day and working with this group and this University is a privilege.”
This was Rider’s first win over the Stags in four tries in the MAAC playoffs and only the sixth time in 38 games that the Broncs have won over Fairfield. Rider swept the Stags last season and the Broncs have won three of the last five over Fairfield.
Fairfield defeated Rider twice during the regular season with the Stags winning 67-61 in Lawrenceville on December 29 and 52-50 in Bridgeport, Connecticut on February 13, a game Rider led by five points with 3:37 left in the contest.
Rider, the sixth seed, advances to play second seed and defending conference champion Marist College on Sunday at 1:30pm in the second semifinal. Top seed Iona College will face fourth seed Quinnipiac University in the first semifinal at 11:00am on Sunday.
“We face a great team in Marist,” Milligan said. “We are going to use the next 36 hours to prepare for a great opportunity. We are going to show up and put our uniform on one sleeve at a time and one leg at a time, just like they do and we are going to come ready.”
“I don’t want my career to end so I’m out here fighting that every day,” McKenzie added.
Rider will play its 32nd game of the season on Sunday, the second most games in a season for Rider in the 75-year history of the team with the 1981-82 squad logging 33 games enroute to a 26-7 record.
Mason entered play with 11 minutes per game before logging 18 minutes against the Stags Friday night, embodying Milligan’s next man up philosophy after the Broncs lost three starters to injury during the season.
“We’ve focused on the small things but understand the big picture,” Milligan said. “They believe in one another and you have to have that foundation to be successful. The players understand that it takes everybody to contribute at different times. Everyone wants their piece of the puzzle to be bigger but our philosophy is that everyone’s piece, for us to be successful, has to be the same size. I have confidence in all of our players and I don’t think we would be where we are if I didn’t.”
Building a strong foundation requires having a Mason to help continue construction of the project that is the Rider women’s basketball 2013-14 season. That Mason is named Stephanie.