Having won their last three games, the Monmouth Hawks will enter Thursday’s game at Saint Peter’s with an 11-5 record in MAAC play and they trail Rider by a game in the race for second place. And King Rice’s team will welcome back its third-leading scorer for that game, as guard Andrew Nicholas has been medically cleared to return according to Joshua Newman of the Asbury Park Press.
Nicholas, who’s averaging 8.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, missed the last four games after suffering a concussion in the days leading up to the Hawks’ February 5 game against Quinnipiac.
“It was definitely frustrating because I’m on my last homestretch here,” Nicholas said Wednesday after practice. “It was fun to watch those guys, though. They won three out of four when I was out and they played really well. I’m excited to get back, jell with these guys again and if we can win these last four games, we can really get on a run going into the (MAAC) Tournament.”
With the MAAC having an 11-team field for its conference tournament, landing one of the top three seeds can be advantageous. In the quarterfinals those teams will face a team that played the day before, with seeds six through 11 having to play in the opening round.
The return of Nicholas helps Monmouth on the perimeter at both ends of the floor, as he’s one of the Hawks’ better three-point shooters and also a solid defender. Nicholas has made the second-most three-pointers on the team with 34 (Justin Robinson’s made 44 three-pointers), despite sitting out the last four games.
Entering this weekend it seemed as if the contenders for the MAAC regular season title were known, with preseason favorite Manhattan being joined by Canisius, Iona, league newcomer Quinnipiac and Rider. However following Canisius’ 85-83 win at Iona on Friday night the unexpected happened in two games.
On Saturday Manhattan lost 71-67 at previously winless (in conference play) Fairfield, with the Jaspers trailing by as many as 19 points in the second half before mounting a rally that fell four points short. Sunday provided another stunner, with Monmouth’s Andrew Nicholas hitting two three-pointers in the final 8.1 seconds of the game to give the Hawks the 83-82 win over Canisius in West Long Branch, N.J.
After two Bill Baron free throws made the score 82-77 with 14 seconds remaining Nicholas, who scored a game-high 28 points, hit a three-pointer to cut the Golden Griffin lead to two. At that point the Hawks received a break in the form of Baron, who finished the game with 21 points, missing the front end of a one-and-one. Monmouth raced down to the other end, with Nicholas’ shot with about three seconds remaining gave them the win.
Canisius’ defeat drops them back into a three-way tie for first place with Manhattan and Quinnipiac, and one thing to take out of the result is what Monmouth was able to do defensively against Baron and his teammates. Baron may have scored 21 points but he was made to work for them, as evidenced by his eight turnovers. And as a team Canisius committed 24 turnovers, which allowed the Hawks to hang around throughout.
The turnover count in this defeat is something Jim Baron will have to address, and the same goes for Monmouth as they committed 20 turnovers. But if anything, Sunday’s surprising finish is just another reminder that it’s unlikely that any team is going to run away with the MAAC crown.