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Rivier women’s hoop hopes unity fuels title chase

NASHUA – Paul Williams got the phone call in late September and he knew that his biggest challenge as a coach loomed.

The Rivier University women’s basketball coach had always preached that his team is a family. And that was put to the test earlier in the school year when tragedy struck a family members, junior point guard Ryan Baker.

Baker’s older brother Ken was killed, struck by a truck while crossing a midtown Manhattan street, and Williams saw his other players rally around Baker in impressive fashion.

“I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way, and you never want to have to deal with anything like that,” Williams said. “This team formulated from what we thought was going to be a very good team into a very tight family very quickly.

“I think we went from having a team that was very close last year to one that realized not to ever get upset at each other for small things.

“Some of the girls immediately stopped what they were doing and went out to be with her and her family.”

“The minute we found out, we came to the gym,” Riv’s leading scorer, Hudson’s Deanna Purcell, said. “Even the freshmen came. It’s crazy how much it brought us together, a special kind of bond.”

Williams definitely thinks the team’s close-knit mentality has helped it to its 13-7 overall record and 7-2 Great Northeast Athletic Conference mark. The Raiders take on defending GNAC champion and current first-place Emmanuel on Saturday at 7:30 at the Muldoon Center, and a win would go a long way to possibly securing home court in the playoffs.

The goal is a conference title and first ever NCAA tourney berth, especially after the Raiders lost to St. Joseph’s of Maine by just a point in last year’s conference semis.

Basketball has been a huge outlet for Baker, who has responded with a solid season, averaging 11 points and nearly five assists a game. Williams inserted her as the starting point guard midway through last year and she hasn’t disappointed, averaging near 17 points a game in GNAC play and leading the conference in steals.

“She’s had some hard days,” Williams said. “She’s a kid that’s highly focused. With everything that went on, she had a 3.9 GPA first semester, one of the highest GPA’s in the university. She’s an incredible person. A great basketball player, but a far superior person.”

Williams made it a point to go out to Baker’s family home in Whitinsville, Mass. (in the Worcester area) to see her, and talk to her. There hasn’t been a single day since her brother’s death that he hasn’t had some type of contact with her.

“Just to let her know that outside of basketball, if she came into the office and said ‘I can’t do this’, I’d miss her on the floor but whatever she needs to do, I would support her.”

That’s not likely to happen.

“It is a family and it was good to come back to these people,” Baker said. “They were with me for everything. (Basketball) was definitely an outlet. I looked forward to practice. I didn’t look forward to anything else.

“We were close before, but now it’s totally different. It sounds corny but we really are family. We take it to a different level and new meaning completely. Some teams get in fights, but if there are fights, it’s settled within 10 seconds.”

Baker was touched by her teammates’ support.

“My whole team was on the phone with me the day it happened,” Baker said. “Everyone said, ‘Oh my God, your team’s great.”

Baker, as the floor general, is such a key. There’s no secret to what style this Raider team will play. They run, and they score. And score. And score some more, averaging 72 points a game and scoring 90 or more three times.

“With that, you end up giving up a lot of points, but our defense has improved in stretches,” Williams said. “But when you play a high risk, high reward style, you’re going to give up some points. … I still feel we can do more.”

It’s been easy to put up points. Remember, they have one of the conference’s best players in sophomore Purcell, the former Alvirne standout who is averaging 21 points a game, and playing at a level even better than when she was one of the top freshmen in Division III nationally last year.

“She’s stepped her game up in a huge way where she’s not playing in her sister’s shadow anymore,” Williams said. “She’s recognized that she’s had to step up her game because she had such a great season last year everyone knows her. Teams remember her on a first name basis. … They’re certainly prepared to play against her now.”

The Raiders also had a windfall. A junior transfer from UMass-Lowell, former Pinkerton standout A.J. Guidi, arrived and has pumped in some 13 points a game. Williams has known her family for a long time, “and I knew when she called it would be a great fit.”

“I just wanted to get back to the whole game being fun,” Guidi said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that has so much heart.”

The Raiders were so close to a GNAC final a year ago, they are hungry to make history this year.

“I think that was some huge fuel for all of them in the off season,” Williams said. “We feel we know this gym, we put up a lot of shots in this gym. We know this floor, we know how the ball bounces.”

And the Raiders hope the rest of this month the ball bounces their way so their season keeps on going into March. Baker certainly feels that way.

“I keep looking forward to everything,” she said. “I don’t want it to end.”