Matchup: #6 Seed Marist
(17-13, 11-7) vs. #2 Rider
(19-9, 12-6), 8:00, MSG
Rankings: Marist, #155 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 10 in MAAC); Rider, #130
Pomeroy Prediction: Rider, 74-71 in 69 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 40%
Result: Rider, 76-71 in 68 Possessions
ALBANY, N.Y.--Down two of its starters and down seven points at halftime, Rider was pushed to victory by a tremendous performance from the the MAAC's Player of the Year on Saturday night at the Times Union Center. Forward Jason Thompson scored 32 points, including 19 in the second half, and the Broncs beat Marist 76-71 to advance to the championship game of the MAAC tournament against Siena Monday night.
The Broncs played without Justin's brother Ryan Thompson, second on the team in minutes played and offensive rating, who suffered a concussion in the Broncs' 75-71 win over Canisius Saturday night. Point guard Justin Robinson was also hurt in that game, going down with an injured knee late in the second half, and he could not play either against Marist. But Rider's 6'11 forward, the MAAC's only NBA prospect, made sure that the tournament's second seed would not need to use any excuses after the game against the sixth seeded Red Foxes.
"Jason was unbelievable," Rider coach Tommy Dempsey said. "I told him earlier today that he's going to earn his Player of the Year tonight. He knew we were short-handed and he had to dominate."
Thompson led all players with 13 points and 10 rebounds at halftime, but he hit only 4-of-9 field goals against a much shorter Marist team, which led 39-32 at the break. In the second half, however, Thompson did indeed dominate. He shot 8-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-3 from the line, scoring his 2,000th career point, and also gathered eight more rebounds. Thompson set the tone on the first possession of the second half, knocking down a jumper which began a quick 9-0 Rider run that erased the Red Foxes' advantage.
"It just gave me a lot of emotion, my brother going down as bad as he did," Thompson added. "Last night [Ryan] was saying, 'We've been on your back for most of the year, [and now] you have to do 10 times more than what you've done.' I took that to heart, and all my other teammates did the same thing, and I lived up to it."
The game went back and forth after Rider's early charge, with the lead changing on seven occasions in the second half. Every time Marist threatened to take back control of the game, Thompson was there to prevent them from doing so, including at the most critical juncture with just under five minutes to play.
Red Foxes guard Louie McCroskey nailed a jumper that tied the game at 63. Rider knew what to do on the other end, throwing it down to the big man, who was fouled and hit both free throws. Two possessions later, with the score still 65-63, Thompson backed down forward Ryan Stilphen, spun in the paint and scored on a short shot. After Marist hit one of two free throws on the other end to cut it to 67-63, Thompson again went to work, powering through his defender to dump in a short shot one-handed while getting fouled. The free throw conversion made it 70-64 with 1:57 to play.
The Red Foxes would cut it to three after a trio of free throws with just over a minute to play, which was when guard Harris Mansell took the mantle from Thompson and finished off the victory. After milking the clock down, Mansell split the pressure defense of two defenders and got into the lane, where he was fouled hard. A 78 percent free throw shooter on the season, Mansell made both of his shots to give Rider a 72-67 lead with 35 seconds left. He then made sure that he had the ball in his hands the rest of the way, hitting four more free throws in the final 20 seconds to finish off the Red Foxes.
Marist focused its defense on Rider's perimeter attack, as the Broncs entered the game with a three-point percentage of 40.3, eighth best in the country. That strategy left the middle open for Thompson. The Red Foxes for the most part refused to double-team so as not to free up shooters on the perimeter, and the Broncs' senior took advantage.
"I wanted to stop them shooting threes," Marist coach Matt Brady said. "[I didn't think Thompson would] be so physical, but it is what it is--they rode him."
The Red Foxes did for the most part hold down Rider's long-range shooting, as the Broncs were just 4-of-13 from three, but they failed to stop freshman point guard Matt Griffin, who hit two big second-half threes. Griffin, who entered the game having only played a third of Rider's minutes on the season, but started in place of Robinson and played 32 minutes. His first three-pointer capped the 9-0 run out of halftime that gave the Broncs back the lead at 41-39. His second was an even bigger shot--after Marist freshman guard Jay Gavin knocked down a three to put the Red Foxes in front 57-56, Griffin answered on the very next possession from the top of the key. Rider would not trail the rest of the game.
Marist shot 51 eFG% from the floor in the first half, but made just eight field goals in the second, good for an eFG% of 36, as the offense failed to adjust when Rider switched from zone to man-to-man defense. The Red Foxes went especially cold from three-point range, hitting only 4-of-18 deep attempts in the second period after they had made 8-of-23 in the first. The Broncs have allowed the largest percentage of opponents' shots from three-point range of any MAAC team, partially due to the fact that Thompson closes up the middle so well and discourages driving, which proved true in the extreme against Marist. The Red Foxes took 41 three-pointers overall against 22 shots from inside the arc.
Freshman Jay Gavin led Marist with 21 points on 5-of-16 from three-point range, while junior Ryan Schneider came off the bench to score 18 points, all in the first half, on 4-of-11 from three. Mansell had 16 points and four assists for the Broncs and Griffin finished with eight points and four assists against just one turnover, while little-used senior Kamron Warner came off the bench to add 10 on 4-of-4 shooting.
Rider now advances to play Siena Monday night in the MAAC tournament championship game. The two teams, which split the regular season series, will be playing for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think the atmosphere is going to be terrific," Dempsey said. "We've shot the ball very well in [the Times Union Center] this year. I believe we'll be able to score the ball. My challenge with this team is, can we stop Siena? I just think they're so explosive offensively, and playing so well."
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.