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Friday, February 24, 2012

GAMEDAY: Loyola (20-7, 12-4) at Rider (11-18, 8-8)

LAWRENCEVILLE — In the midst of arguably his toughest year as a head coach, Tommy Dempsey is trying to rally the Rider men’s basketball team for one final push.

The Broncs, who have lost four straight, face a crucial Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference game Friday night against Loyola (7 p.m., ESPN2).

With a win, they can finish no worse than sixth.

Rider is in fifth place with two regular-season games remaining but face the two teams tied for second in those contests. Both Siena and Niagara are one game behind the Broncs. The Saints played Thursday night.

The goal is avoiding next Friday’s play-in game at the conference tournament.


Two weeks ago, Rider was in the clear until getting robbed at Niagara. A four-game losing streak, which it hopes to snap Friday, followed and the Broncs find themselves in a perilous position.

“It’s pointless to focus on the play-in game in January,” Dempsey said. “Now that’s what we are trying to avoid. The first thing we want to do is get out of that Friday game, and it looks like we are going to have to win our way out.”

This year, one in which Rider was picked to finish near the top of the league, has been difficult for Dempsey.

He’s yelled, pushed and challenged his players, but the team has never sustained any kind of momentum.

The 18 losses are the program’s most since losing 20 in 2005-06, the year Dempsey was interim coach.
“I’ve been on them all year and I feel like we’ve just got a little bit worn down from all the yelling and screaming,” Dempsey said. “We’ve never really been able to get in a good place throughout the course of the year. I seem to be fighting them most of the year. At this point, I’m just trying to stay positive and see if I can help rally them one last time.”

But it’s not like luck has been on their side.

It’s hard to find a time this season when Dempsey has had a full complement of players.

It could be a built-in excuse if there ever was one.

“We can’t sit here and continue to make excuses,” Dempsey said. “Have we faced a lot of adversity? Yes. Has there ever been a time where it has been smooth? Not really. We never seem to have everybody. We’re trying to fight through it, stay together and focus on one last rally to finish the year strong.”

Dempsey said he’s tried to create a more positive atmosphere at practice.

“I feel, in a way, I might have been piling on because I’ve been trying to challenge them at every turn,” said the 38-year-old coach. “I still want guys to want to be here. You have to guard against wanting it to be over. I’m not going to come in here and be screaming. That ship has sailed and I think we’re past that point.

“Right now, I’m just trying to create an environment where everybody wants to be here. We want to finish strong and want to be feeling good about what we’re trying to do here to end the season.”

In the first matchup with Loyola, the Broncs shot 3 of 23 in the first half, scoring 12 points in a blowout, 63-46 loss.

To avoid a repeat, they have to match Loyola’s intensity.
“They just took it to us physically,” Dempsey said. “They were playing at a different speed than we were, especially in the first 15 minutes. I thought we adjusted and picked up our level of play and settled into the game a little bit, but by that time, it was too late.”

Rider will be without sophomore guard Anthony Myles, who broke his left hand in the loss to Albany Saturday.

Brandon Penn, who missed the trip with knee injury, will play Friday.

He said he felt good following practice Wednesday and was ready to go.

Penn has been Rider’s most consistent player, averaging 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, respectively.

Loyola, under eighth-year coach Jimmy Patsos, has its first 20-win season since becoming a Division I program.

“I think we’re just as good as them or better,” Penn said. “We just had a terrible performance there. I think we will all be ready to go and it will be a good game.”

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