ALBANY — There is something about an underdog that everyone falls in love with. As sports fans, people just have a sense to root against the favorites and cheer on the unappreciated team that everyone else has already written off. These underdogs love to come out during the month of March. In March, college basketball thrives off underdogs and fans want to see new teams win their respected conferences and see new faces in the NCAA tournament.
Friday night was no different. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has hit day two of their tournament with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line. Friday night’s game featured two teams, one finished close to bottom of the conference while the other was out on top. The ninth seed Saint Peter’s Peacocks (14-17, 6-12) came into the Times Union Center fresh off their narrow win over Monmouth in the first round one day earlier, seeking to keep their title hopes alive against the top seeded Rider Broncs (22-9, 15-3).
Saint Peter’s started the game very well as they held Rider without a basket for the first five minutes of the game while jumping out to an early lead. However, Rider was not the top seed in the conference tournament for nothing. They came storming back as the found a way to get to the rim, the foul line and hit some three-point shots to stay even with the Peacocks. There was a sense it the building that the Broncs would be taking over this game as they continued to score on the Peacocks. Rider took over and upped their lead to eight with just under four minutes to go.
At this point, Saint Peter’s shut down Rider and went on a 10-0 run to close out the quarter and led 27-25 at halftime. During that run, the Peacocks were dominating in the paint, hitting layups and getting key rebounds to keep possessions alive.
“We knew we were going to have to fight harder than we have all year in the paint,” Saint Peter’s head coach John Dunne said after the game.
With Saint Peter’s being aggressive in the paint, Rider seemed a little passive and head coach Kevin Baggett was fully aware of that. “One of our keys tonight (was) we needed to score 40+ points in the paint in order for us to win and we only scored 20… so they got whatever it is they wanted and we gambled too much.”
Saint Peter’s would not let up going into the second half. They continued to score and score at will. Freshman guard Elijah Gonzales, who has quick feet and very nice passing abilities, found open men in the paint like junior forward Mamadou Ndiaye and sophomore forward Quinn Taylor for easy layups that extended the lead even farther.
The Peacocks continued the slaughter throughout the second half especially on the defensive side of the court. Saint Peter’s held Rider to 14.3 % (3-21) from three-point range and grabbing 41 total rebounds.
Rider never led in the second half as Saint Peter’s largest lead was 15 points.
“I never felt like we played well together as a team… from start to finish we just had too many guys trying to win the game for us, instead of playing as a team,” Baggett said.
Saint Peter’s tournament will continue as they become the first ninth-seeded team to advance to the semifinals of the MAAC tournament. They will await the winner of the Iona/Manhattan matchup that will occur Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. at the Times Union Center.
Rider will not go home just yet though. With their NCAA tournament hopes crushed, they have earned a bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) because they finished the regular season atop of the MAAC. That tournament will begin March 13.