The Rider University campus in Lawrenceville, N.J., is 40 miles or so from Philadelphia, but for a Broncs' roster largely populated by former Philadelphia high school players, last night's game against La Salle in Tom Gola Arena must have felt like the Big 5 contest they never officially got to play.
"They showed a little bit of interest, but they weren't really too serious," Rider's Mike Ringgold, a senior forward who prepped at Roman Catholic, said of his failure to attract even a nibble from Big 5 schools, including La Salle.
At least Ringgold admitted the snub. Novar Gadson, the junior swingman who played at John Bartram, said, "I honestly don't remember" if he was recruited by any Big 5 teams.
But whether Rider's four Philadelphians on the court last night choose to acknowledge hurt feelings or not, the fact they're playing for the Broncs, who hold membership in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, instead of a Philly school in the Big East, Atlantic 10 or Ivy League makes for a gutful of incentive whenever the opponent has a Big 5 imprimatur. So you can excuse Ringgold for gloating just a bit after his team thumped the Explorers, 77-68, riding a 22-6 second-half run, 56.7 percent shooting in the second half and a combined 62 points, 24 rebounds, six assists, five steals and seven blocked shots from the Philadelphia imports.
The victory was especially sweet for Gadson, whose previous return to his hometown this season ended in a 71-67 overtime loss to Drexel on Dec. 11.
"Every game we ever played in Philly, we took a loss," said Gadson, who finished with a game-high 25 points and seven rebounds. "So it was big for us to get this win."
But if the Broncs went back to Lawrenceville happy, the same can't be said of the Explorers, who fell to 6-6 with their second straight loss in which the defense resembled a large slice of Swiss cheese. This was not the way coach John Giannini wanted his team to go into its Christmas break before resuming its schedule with a Dec. 29 hosting of Towson.
"We can't stay in front of anyone and we let any post player catch the ball wherever they want," Giannini said of his team's inability to put up much resistance in the paint, where the smaller Broncs pretty much had their way in the second half. "We're just not very good. When you give up 57 percent [shooting] in the second half, that's a huge problem.
"Offense can come and go, but defense . . . we need to improve in every possible way, especially in terms of commitment. It all starts with wanting to be a good defender. Our defensive commitment is not good enough.
"We've been giving up brutal shooting percentages in second halves, and we're trying every defense imaginable. We give up shockingly easy baskets."
There's no question that Gadson and Ringgold, each of whom is 6-7, had oodles of want-to, and at both ends of the floor. Not only did they drive the lane for layups and score on tip-ins and putbacks, but they swarmed La Salle's 6-10 center and leading scorer, Aaric Murray, like flies that refused to be shooed away. Murray finished with another double-double - 13 points and 10 rebounds - but he missed his first eight shots, all of which were from close range but contested.
With La Salle's best outside shooter, Ruben Guillandeaux, hitting three of 11 shots overall and nailing only one of his four attempts from beyond the arc, it fell to senior forward Jerrell Williams to keep the Explorers in it, and he did so for a long time in finishing with a career-high 24 points and pulling down a game-high 14 rebounds. Williams scores a lot of "perspiration points," outworking guys in different-colored jerseys for shots that aren't pretty but count just as much as the highlight-reel stuff.
But he didn't get enough help this night, not when Rider (8-5) had so many guys from Philly who went to the glass as if a Final Four berth was riding on the outcome.
"When I got the Rider job, I made a concerted effort to recruit Philadelphia," said Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, who doesn't mind scooping up the odd Big 5 reject. "There's so many good players here. The Big 5 can't get them all. Some of these guys probably do have a chip on their shoulders."
Last night, it showed.