The unlikely journey of Rider College to today's East Coast Conference championship game -- and brink of the NCAA tournament -- may actually have begun along a barren stretch of New Jersey turnpike two summers ago.
That's where Darrick Suber, the Pittsburgh City League Player of the Year in 1989, stopped to call Rider coach Kevin Bannon and ask if he still had a basketball scholarship left. Suber had just had a change of heart about enrolling at St. Francis in Brooklyn and was driving home to Pennsylvania.
"He was calling from exit 7," Bannon said. "I told him he was less than a half-hour from Rider [in Lawrenceville, N.J.], that he should stop by."
Suber stopped and liked what he saw. In short order, Bannon, then a first-year head coach, had a key building block for his new program. Two short years later, the Broncs are challenging Towson State for supremacy of the ECC (5 p.m., ESPN).
That Rider (14-15) and Towson (18-10) would play for the ECC's berth in the NCAA tournament seems fitting. These two teams mirror each other in style and intensity. They are both guard-oriented on offense, pressure-minded on defense. Yesterday, at an ECC luncheon in Towson, Bannon and Truax traded compliments.
"We want to be just like them when we grow up," said Bannon.
"Coach Bannon deserves a lot of credit," countered Truax, "because he brought his program along a lot quicker than I was able to."
Rider came into the ECC tournament as the sixth seed. But the Broncs avenged two regular-season losses to Drexel in the quarterfinals, then outlasted second-seeded Delaware in overtime in the semis. Suber, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, scored 50 points in those two games. He was at his best against Delaware, when Rider had to play most of the game without senior point guard Marcus Pryor, who has a fractured bone in his left foot.
Suber scored eight points in the last 84 seconds of regulation to force overtime. Then he popped a three-point field goal and made a critical steal to help sink the Blue Hens.
"Until the last couple of minutes of the game, I tried to play within myself," Suber said. "But with or without Marcus, in the last couple of minutes of a close game, I feel the game is mine. The last couple of minutes, I can make something happen."
Suber is averaging 18.4 points this season. Six times he's had 25 or more.
Rider is making its first appearance in the ECC final since winning the title in 1984 under John Carpenter, now the ECC's commissioner. Towson is making its fourth championship game appearance in five years.