Rider was the one school I absolutely wanted to visit for the 800 Games Project. They're relatively close to me (a fifty-minute ride in light traffic, on my side of the Delaware River) and I've been on Rider repeatedly during the last decade through my involvement with American Legion Jersey Boys State. Rider is a perfect location for the program: in the middle of the state, five minutes from Trenton, the state capital where all the legislators work. For a civics program, it's hard to get much better. Not only is it a central place for arriving delegates, families, and staff, but governors, state senators, assemblymen and anyone else involved in the state legislature are often amenable to taking a short trip up Route 206 into Lawrenceville to speak to the program's delegates (and occasionally their parents). The program reaps the benefits of its accessibility.
I was a ALJBS delegate in 2003 and have been on staff since. Rider's done a lot of construction during those years, though not enough on the dorms to please grumbling delegates. One of the largest projects they completed was the Student Athletic Center, which attaches to Alumni Gym and houses a fitness center, multipurpose courts, and more. Rider has made parts of the Center available for the program and we've used them well. Of course, we don't get to use them without watching over the delegates as they use them.
About five years ago, I was assigned to help cover the weight room. There's no place to sit in the weight room, so you're often paired with someone who can relieve you. On my break, I sat down on the metal bleachers just outside the weight room door. There was a loose pickup game on the indoor court in front of me, with a bunch of athletically built guys who looked like they could be college basketball players. The teams were uneven, so they picked up a delegate who was wandering by to make four-on-four and began running again. The delegate fit in quietly, playing point guard and throwing easy passes to huge men cutting off the wing--especially the tallest one. He looked about seven feet tall, with broad shoulders and a matching smile, and he was dunking everything. He'd catch a pass in stride while running the court, take it on a bounce, then jump until half his forearm was above the rim, and dunk, overjoyed and laughing on the way down before doing it again. Catch, bounce, dunk.
I watched in awe. Seven-foot men can not do these things unless they're Dwight Howard. He didn't completely look like Howard but, on the other hand, I couldn't quite make out his face, twenty feet away from me. All I saw was an incredible, NBA-level athlete having fun while getting his dunks assisted by a Boys State delegate.
Jason Thompson was drafted by the Sacramento Kings a year or so later. I pieced things together after he had been drafted. It's almost undoubtedly the closest I will ever be to a professional athlete or sporting event and it happened on a side court at a small commuter school in New Jersey.
Thompson's main-court teams weren't much to write about. Rider University last made the NCAA tournament in 1994, before leaving the NEC for the MAAC, and have since been an eerie model of consistent meh. Yearly winning totals: 17, 19 14, 18, 12, 16, 16, 17, 12, 17, 19, 8, 16, 23, 19, 17, 23, 12. Mean, 16.4; Median, 17. The cranberry-and-white Broncs' conference record may fluctuate but Rider seems to be remarkably consistent at being average year-to-year. They live in the shadowlands of nondescript, not good or bad enough to break through the MAAC, let alone national consciousness. This year, they've struggled, starting the year 1-10 and coming into the contest at 11-18. They played Jimmy Patsos' Loyola team twenty-one days ago and got hammered, 63-46, after trailing 39-12 at the half. This game was their chance for revenge, televised revenge.
It was an important game for Loyola, too. At 12-4, Loyola was one game ahead of Manhattan for second place, one game behind Iona for first place. After facing Rider on Friday, they would close out the season with Manhattan on Sunday. A win would keep the pressure on Manhattan and position the Greyhounds to capitalize on any Iona slip. A loss would make Sunday's game the deciding factor for second place.
Patsos was his usual animated self for the game, walking the sidelines, clapping, hollering, and a bunch of other things along the way. The game almost seemed to feed off his personality, the teams setting a frenetic pace right from the tip. Five seconds into the game, Loyola got a dunk to open the scoring. Sixteen seconds later, Rider senior Novar Gadson was fouled and made his free throws. Then, after a Loyola miss, Rider guard Jonathon Thompson (no relation) threw down a forceful fastbreak dunk over a Greyhound defender to ignite the crowd one minute into the game. For the first time tonight, Alumni Gym got loud.
Alumni Gym is a tiny, sweaty arena that feels like a New Jersey high school gym. On either side of the court, the seats come right up to the out of bounds line, which can create some tight out-of-bounds throw-ins. One baseline has a stage and steep bleachers behind it, the other has the entry doors five feet from the out-of-bounds mark. The ceiling peak runs lengthwise over the court, gracefully sloping to the edges like a barn. There is no air conditioning and no windows. All the energy, noise and body heat stays inside. We fit over 2,000 people inside the gym for ALJBS graduation in June, transforming the Gym into a steam bath of body heat and New Jersey humidity. Winters aren't as bad, but with a sellout crowd of 1,650, the arena began got hot and loud in a hurry. Bronc fans had circled this date and were ready. Thompson's dunk opened the gates.
Then Novar Gadson took over. The senior swingman started by getting to the line, then began to hit threes, finishing the half with twenty points on five-of-five shooting. Rider, who had only scored forty-six against Loyola three weeks earlier, scored forty-six in the first half--but could never pull away from Loyola. The game flew back and forth, both teams relentlessly attacking.
The second half came with slight drop in energy, which was not what Jimmy Patsos wanted. "Intense!" Across the court, I could hear Patsos' yell. "Intense!" Patsos is a magnetic figure to watch, completely plugged into the game and its energy, and he grew more vociferous as it progressed as he tried to energize his team. It wasn't working. Loyola played decently but was unable to even with Rider. Eventually, Patsos lost it. Rider senior Jeff Jones got an and-one opportunity on a questionable foul under the basket, one that the refs had not called on the last few Loyola possessions, and Patsos earned himself a technical. After the free throws, Rider went up seven, then up ten by the under-12 timeout. The Broncs appeared to have the game in hand.
Then R.J. Williams came back into the game. Williams, a 5'8" guard from Baltimore, had logged eighteen strong minutes in the first half but was strangely benched to start the second half. It didn't take long for the lightning-quick freshman to make a difference, running the offense with the speed and Intense! that Patsos wanted. The team responded. Loyola free throw, down by nine. A deep three from Robert Olson, down by six. Two free throws, down four. A layup, down two. Two more free throws, tied. In two and a half minutes, Loyola stormed back on a 10-0 run to quiet Patsos and unnerve the Rider crowd. At the next media timeout, Loyola held a one-point lead.
While Williams was on the floor, Patsos was relatively calm, even when Rider blew open the Loyola defense on a possession. When Williams went out, it was as though Patsos' spirit left the court and he grew restless again. The refereeing didn't help his restlessness. With just over four minutes left, Loyola missed a shot but the ball hit a Rider player before going out with two on the shot clock. Patsos and the rest of the team pointed to the rim and the shot clock. Replays showed the ball clearly hitting the rim before caroming out of bounds. Loyola should have received a fresh :35. Instead, they got :02. Patsos couldn't believe it. He called timeout to let the referees look at the replay but they refused to look. Olson missed a difficult three to end the possession. On the next Loyola possession, Olson was called for a phantom foul after a Rider defensive rebound. The referee looked at the approaching Patsos and put his whistle in his mouth. Patsos stopped, put up his hands, shook his head, and walked back to the bench. He had already lost a critical timeout in a close game and didn't want to pick up a second technical.
Suddenly, after not scoring for four minutes, Loyola tied the game on Dylon Cormier's layup-and-one. But Jones, who carried Rider with sixteen in the second half, answered with a three at 1:45. The Gym got loud, anticipating a close finish and possibly a Rider win. Loyola got a layup to cut it to one, then got a spectacular windmill layup by Cormier over a long Rider defender to put them in the lead. Alumni Gym fell silent. It was the sixteenth lead change of the game and it put Loyola up 79-78 with :52 left.
Rider came down and worked the ball inside to Novar Gadson on the left post. Gadson was scoreless in the second half and had missed a layup just seconds earlier. Gadson collected the pass in the middle of the Loyola zone, looked left, dribbled twice to his right, spun to his left, rose and put up a shot. Bucket, plus one. Seventeenth lead change. Euphoria in Lawrenceville. Gadson made his free throw, Rider defended the three well on the next possession (which they hadn't done all game long) and collected the defensive rebound with eight seconds left. Brandon Penn, another Bronc senior, calmly nailed two free throws to ice it. Rider won, 83-79.
I drove up to Rider expecting a Loyola win. Instead, I got a Bronc win and a dejected coach walking across the court after 0.0, no doubt wondering the same things I was. In a tight, close game, the little things add up. A technical foul for arguing. A lost timeout. Strange foul calls. Four minutes without scoring late in the game. Going 2-12 from three in the second half after going 5-13 in the first. Sitting Williams for over ten minutes in the second half. Loyola's inability to grab crucial rebounds. Little things live in the shadowlands, but their shadows seem much, much bigger when you're searching for answers after the game has hurt you. I hope Patsos and Loyola don't have to worry about little things and shadows on Sunday against Manhattan. Rider got their big win of the year. It's time Loyola got theirs and broke out of the shadowlands. Go Greyhounds. Go Jimmy Patsos.
at RIDER 83, LOYOLA (MD.) 79 02/24/2012
LOYOLA (MD.) 20-8 (12-5) -- S. Walker 3-7 6-6 14; J. Drummond 5-11 2-2 13; E. Etherly 5-6 4-9 14; R. Williams 4-8 2-2 11; D. Cormier 4-9 4-4 12; R. Olson 2-7 2-2 7; A. Winbush 1-2 0-0 3; J. Hall 1-4 2-2 5; J. Latham 0-1 0-0 0; J. Brooks 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 22-27 79. RIDER 12-18 (9-8) -- J. Thompson 6-9 1-1 15; B. Penn 2-9 7-8 12; J. Jones 5-9 4-5 16; D. Stewart 3-6 5-6 11; N. Gadson 6-8 8-9 23; J. Fortunat 2-4 0-1 4; E. Mitchell 0-3 0-0 0; D. Nd-Ezuma 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 25-51 25-30 83.
Three-point goals: LMD 7-25 (S. Walker 2-4; J. Hall 1-4; A. Winbush 1-1; R. Olson 1-6; D. Cormier 0-3; J. Drummond 1-4; R. Williams 1-3), RID 8-15 (J. Jones 2-4; B. Penn 1-5; N. Gadson 3-3; J. Thompson 2-3); Rebounds: LMD 22 (E. Etherly 8), RID 32 (B. Penn 10); Assists: LMD 15 (J. Drummond 4), RID 11 (J. Jones 3); Total Fouls -- LMD 21, RID 21; Fouled Out: LMD-None; RID-None.