WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ – There were several reasons Monmouth University men’s basketball coach King Rice was all smiles as he took his seat facing reporters and a battery of tape recorders and microphones late Friday night inside the Multi Purpose Activity Center.
It wasn’t too long ago, coming off his first three years at Monmouth which resulted in three 20-loss seasons, it appeared the former University of North Carolina point guard might instead be on his way to facing a firing squad.
“It was a dark time,” Rice said. “I hadn’t lost that much in my life. And then you have three seasons of over 20 losses.”
But Friday not only had Monmouth defeated Rider, 79-58, and in doing so clinched the top seed in the 2016 MAAC tournament (and an automatic berth in the NIT), but earlier in the day Monmouth had given Rice a contract extension that takes him through the 2020-21 season. It comes on the heels of the surprising three-year extension he received from athletic director Marilyn McNeil at the onset of last season when the program was still languishing.
His original five-year contract was set to expire in a few months.
“It was not good,” Rice said of his situation just prior to last year’s turnaround when Monmouth won 18 games. Before that Monmouth had not posted a winning record since 2005-2006, also its last visit to the NCAAs.
“I didn’t feel good, I didn’t look good, my team wasn’t playing well,” Rice said. “You just start doubting a lot of things.
“I probably wasn’t a real good dad at that time. You’re just a down in the dumps guy.”
Friday, behind 19 points by redshirt freshman guard Micah Seaborn who paced four players in double figures, Monmouth (24-6, 16-3) swept the Broncs (11-19, 7-12) in the season series and registered consecutive wins over Rider for the first time since 1995-96 when both schools were members of the Northeast Conference.
The Hawks also snapped a six-game losing streak to Rider in West Long Branch dating back to a 64-59 victory on Dec. 24, 2003.
Top-seeded Monmouth will play the number eight or nine seed (possibly Rider) in the quarterfinals of the MAAC tournament 7 p.m. Friday at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.
“It feels great right now,” Rice said.
According to Rice the extension Monmouth granted him at the beginning of last season was the turning point.
As the Hawks were preparing to leave for the season opener at the University of West Virginia he had a meeting with McNeil.
“You don’t know what the talk is going to be about,” Rice said. “You’ve got 20 losses three times in a row. Everybody in the state of New Jersey was telling all the recruits I’m getting fired.
“So when I went out, everywhere I went, it was ‘You’re getting fired, you’re getting fired.’ That’s what I was dealing with.
“But then when she showed what she did and just really believed in me, my staff, and my kids, we go to 18 wins (last season),” Rice said.
“That made me relax, I knew I could coach the team.”
Monmouth played its third full game (2-1) without its lone senior, 6’6 forward Deon Jones (broken hand).
The team’s No. 3 scorer (10.4 ppg), top rebounder (6.2 rpg) and a 1,000 point producer Jones was injured in the Hawks Feb. 15 game vs. Manhattan.
The cast was removed this week but there has been no specific word as to his return.
Here are three takeways from Friday’s game
1. The dreams are coming true for Monmouth: “This is what we envisioned when we were taking our lumps freshman year, but we’re not done,” said junior point guard Justin Robinson who had 10 points Friday night.
Robinson played 23 minutes sitting out the final 9:11.
Robinson was a freshman on the 2013-14 team that went 11-21. “This is just Part 1 on the belt, so we gotta stay focused and get the rest of this done,” he said. “We want to get a MAAC championship ultimately.”
“I have the best group of kids that believed in our program, came here when we weren’t winning games and have just been the best kids,” Rice said. “I’m the luckiest coach that I get to coach guys like Justin, Micah and the guys down the hallway.”
With one game left in the MAAC season Monmouth has clinched no worse than a tie for the regular season title, as it owns the tiebreakers vs. second place Iona which is one game behind in the standings.
The regular season crown is Monmouth’s third as a Division I program. It shared the 2003-04 regular season NEC title with St. Francis Brooklyn and won it outright the next season under former coach Dave Calloway.
2. Making amends: Two Fridays ago a Monmouth opportunity to clinch the regular season MAAC title at home was temporarily obliterated in a three-point barrage by Iona, Monmouth’s only home court loss this season.
For Monmouth the second consecutive Friday night time around was a charm.
Another loud packed house of 4,194 fans at the Multi Purpose Activity center, most clad in white shirts with blue trimmings on “White Out Night,” saw the Hawks improve their home court record this season to 9-1.
“We don’t like to lose at home, we have a great home fan base, we don’t want to disappoint our fans,” Robinson said. “But more importantly we don’t like to lose, so to lose at home was tough.”
Seaborn said the team vowed it could not lose Friday night. “We’re not letting this slip out of our hands, (we were) just focused,” Seaborn said.
On Feb. 12 Rider enjoyed a late 14-point lead against the Hawks only to have Monmouth roar back and win. With Monmouth ahead by 12 points at the half Friday, Seaborn said his team was wary of a reverse outcome.
It never came close to happening. Monmouth led by double digits from midway though the first half, eventually leading by 23 points in the final minutes.
3. Two 9-0 Monmouth runs, one at the start of the game and the other to open the second half sealed Rider’s fate. “Poor performance, defensively and individually top to bottom,” was Rider coach Kevin Baggett’s assessment of the game.
Unlike the Feb. 12 game between the two team’s at Rider, when the Broncs blew a 14-point lead with under four minutes to go, Rider was never in contention this time.
Rider lost its third consecutive game and fell for the fifth time in its last six.
Kahlil Thomas, Rider’s 6’7, 225 pound junior center, led the Broncs with 16 points and eight rebounds.
“We’re leaking oil big time,” Baggett said. “We just didn’t show up tonight.”
Rider played without reigning Sixth Man of the Year, 6’3 senior guard Zedric Sadler. Sadler missed his third game in a row with an ankle injury and Rider has dropped all three.
“Zed’s our heart and soul,” Baggett said.
Sadler has played in 121 career games, 73 off the bench. He was averaging 5.7 ppg this season and had 11 points, six rebounds, and three assists in the earlier loss to Monmouth.
“Obviously we miss him,” Baggett said. “But we still gotta be able to go out here and defend a little bit and not get beat on every drive and give up second shot opportunities and turn the ball over the way that we did.”
Friday Monmouth outscored Rider in second chance points, 20-11, while the Broncs also yielded 13 points off 19 turnovers.
Baggett said he didn’t know if Sadler is close to returning. “We’ll see what he looks like tomorrow and go from there.”
RIDER TIP-INS: With nine points Friday junior guard Jimmie Taylor is two shy of becoming the 35th 1,000 point scorer in program history. Darrick Suber (1990-93) owns the record with 2,219 career points. … Rider is 3-9 in televised games this season including Friday night on ESPN2. … Rider and Marist are both in their 19th seasons in the MAAC where they are still looking for their first MAAC tournament championships and accompanying NCAA tournament automatic bids. … Rider closes its regular season 6 p.m. Sunday vs. Manhattan (ESPN3). … Rider still leads the all-time series with Monmouth, 27-18, and has won 12 of the last 16 meetings. … Rider last season enjoyed its best season in the MAAC where it went 15-5 en route to a second place finish.
MONMOUTH TIP-INS: With 1,242 career points Robinson moved into 20th and ninth place respectively on the school’s all time and Division I scoring lists. He has realistic shots to secure No. 2 at Monmouth all time (Ed Halecki, 1,777 from 1969-72) and with 601 this season is on the heels of Alex Blackwell’s 663 single season record for points set in 1990-91. Monmouth has been playing basketball since 1956-57 and went DI in 1983-84. … Monmouth’s Feb. 12 comeback victory over Rider made it the seventh team in NCAA history to rally from 14 or more points with under five minutes remaining and the first since 2012. … Four of those teams needed overtime and only one had less time remaining (3:22 when Belmont defeated Campbell 87-84 after it trailed by 18 points on Feb. 6, 2009). On Feb. 12 Monmouth trailed at Rider 76-62 with 3:56 to go. … Monmouth’s Feb. 21 victory at Saint Peter’s gave the Hawks their nation’s leading 13th road victory. They also lead the NCAA with 15 road/neutral court wins. … Monmouth began action Friday fourth in the nation in free throw percentage (77.4%) and fifth in free throws made (545). It shot 7-10 from the line Friday. … Monmouth’s regular season finale is 5 p.m. Sunday at the MAC vs. Niagara.
DID YOU KNOW? Clair Bee, who wrote the popular Chip Hilton books, was an accounting professor at Rider who founded the school’s varsity sports in 1928-29 and coached football, basketball, and baseball.