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Heroics abundant across the MAAC

Close calls, big shots and bigger defensive plays have had fans on the edge of their seats.

NCAA Basketball: Rider at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The game is the same no matter how many people are watching, and in the MAAC, fans are almost always treated to close games with late drama. The last two weekends, there have been 20 games of MAAC basketball, and not a single one was decided by more than 18 points.

Fourteen were decided by two possessions or fewer.

In the dying moments of games, heroes rise and lift their team over the top — whether it’s with an impressive defensive pla. a game-winning shot or any other wild play you can conjure. That’s the beauty of the league: any team can beat any other team on any given day. The standings are in constant flux.

Having a guy on your team that embraces the moment is something that makes everybody more comfortable and confident. When Rider went into Iona last weekend, they were trying to end a three-game losing skid, and it looked like that would continue when they trailed by 18 points in the second half.

The Broncs never gave up hope, and came all the way back to tie, and even take the lead, before Iona free throws tied the game back at 67 with about 26 seconds left. Everybody in the gym knew that Dwight Murray Jr. was going to get the basketball.

Murray had a marquee moment against Iona prior to this game as well, as he was the one who hit the shot that sent Iona out of the MAAC Tournament in the quarterfinals last year, and he was keen to add to his resume.

“All my teammates knew I was going to take that shot,” Murray said. “Even if coach was going to write it up, they would have said ‘Let D.J. go 1-4 flat’ and they all trusted me.”

Head coach Kevin Baggett wasn’t going to draw it up any different.

“My guy here always wants the big shot, and even if he misses it he’s going to want it again,” he said.

Murray rewarded his teammates’ faith with a contested step-back 3 in front of the Broncs bench to gave them a 70-67 lead with seconds remaining. When Daniss Jenkins’ desperation heave fell off the rim, Iona’s 21-game home winning streak was over, and the Gaels had lost two games of three.

Murray’s heroics earned him the nickname “Iona killer” from childhood friend and Rider co-star Mervin James. But that’s just another day in the MAAC, as we saw elsewhere in the league.

With the game tied at 57, Niagara’s Noah Thomasson, the nation’s top isolation scorer by volume, drove past St. Peter’s Isiah Dasher and hit a tough layup with about eight seconds on the clock. When Jaylen Murray’s 3-pointer didn’t connect, the Purple Eagles had escaped Jersey City with a character building victory over the Peacocks.

Thomasson had chances to ice the game with free throws earlier, but couldn’t connect. On the previous possession, Dasher did an excellent job defensively, forcing the Houston native to dribble down the shot clock, and eventually force David Mitchell into a hurried shot that he missed. But, when it came down to the final shot, he was up for the task.

“Well, I missed all those free throws so I told myself ‘I gotta go win this one,’” Thomasson said. “[Dasher] forced me right and I liked the matchup, the basketball gods helped me I guess.”

Thomasson finished with 19 points, and helped Niagara end their losing streak and return to .500 in the MAAC.

The theme of teammates’ trust bleeds into another MAAC guard, Fairfield’s Caleb Fields. In front of a raucous crowd of students in just the second game ever at the brand new Leo D. Mahoney Arena, Fields sunk a floater that won the Stags the in-town bout with rival Sacred Heart on a December night.

“At first, I thought we were going to call a timeout,” Fields told the media after the game. “But I looked at coach [Young] and he was like, ‘go,’ and then I looked up and I saw the mismatch. My teammates trusted me at that moment and I just made the shot.”

However, a few weeks later at the same venue, Siena conquered Fields in the final minutes, not allowing him to get downhill. Winning plays aren’t just game winning shots, they can come from the defensive end. Trailing by three points with under 40 seconds to play, Fields attempted to hand the ball off, but waiting for him was freshman Michael Eley, who poked the ball away to win possession for the Saints.

Jared Billups, who was a key part of the effort to stopping Fields that day, missed the front end of the one-and-one, but Michael Baer made a winning play himself, grabbing the offensive rebound to secure an extra possession for Siena, where Javian McCollum iced the game from the line.

When games come down to the wire, it seems like every MAAC team has a guy that they can rely on to get a bucket. In Riverdale a few years ago, there was a short guard who made his career off hitting clutch shots, and being a reliable 3-point shooter. Fast forward to today, and RaShawn Stores is now manning the sideline at his alma mater, and his team trusts a small guard to hit clutch shots and be a reliable 3-point shooter.

On Friday night against Iona, Samir Stewart brought very little for the majority of the game, but when Manhattan began to mount their comeback, and they needed to hit some outside shots, they trusted Stewart with the ball. The senior drained three treys in the last few minutes of regulation, including one with 20 seconds left to tie the game at 68.

Stores praises Stewart’s leadership and character, as well as professing his trust in him in big spots.

“He takes big shots and he makes them for the most part, and when he doesn’t, we still live with him,” he said.

Even though Iona ended up winning the game, the heart that the Jaspers showed is a testament to Stores’ coaching this season. When Steve Masiello was abruptly fired in October, and three Jaspers, including Preseason Player of the Year Jose Perez, entered the transfer portal, many predicted that it would be a lost season for Manhattan. However, Stores has picked up the pieces and been an excellent leader for the team, and they currently sit within striking distance of a bye in the MAAC Tournament.

With the incredible parity in the MAAC not only in the standings (every team has at least three wins and at least two losses), but the individual games themselves, it’s not hard to envision there being multiple scenarios in Atlantic City where a player becomes a hero with a game winning shot, or a different heroic action. Whether it’s somebody that was mentioned here, or somebody else, just know that these are the moments that truly make college basketball special.