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A long shot no more


Robert Taylor treats Division I basketball like a job, not an activity. Over the summer, the Rider University sophomore remains on the Lawrenceville, N.J., campus, taking classes and putting in extra hours in the gym.

The former St. John Neumann High standout went through a tough transition his first year at Rider. After averaging 14 minutes, 2.6 points and 1.9 rebounds, the player took steps to become an impact player.

"I did it because I wasn’t going to allow myself to have another season like last year," said Taylor, of 15th and Dickinson streets. "[Last year] I wasn’t physically and mentally ready, plus I had upperclassmen in front of me, so I had to wait my turn."

Putting in summer overtime has paid off for the athlete, who stepped into a starting role and developed one of the most consistent three-point shots in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

He started all 28 games this season, and drastically improved in every statistical category, including points (13.2), rebounds (4.4), assists (2.3), steals (1.8) and minutes (34.1), all of which rank first or second on the team.

Just like his days at Neumann, Taylor isn’t afraid to take the big shot. In Friday’s first round MAAC Championship Tournament, the 6-foot-2 guard made a 30-foot three-point field goal at the buzzer, tying the game against St. Peter’s at 59 and sending the game into overtime. Rider’s Broncs ended up losing the contest and their chances of earning a NCAA Tournament invitation. The MAAC Tournament champion gets the lone conference invitation.

Taylor has two more seasons to chase the NCAA goal. In the meantime, coach Don Harnum is extremely pleased with the strides the player has made.

"I think he is better than I expected he would be as a sophomore," the coach said. "He just made tremendous improvement from freshman to sophomore year, and he is much more consistent."

Taylor credits his progress to dedicating a good portion of his summer workouts to shooting drills. With the help of the shooting machine, the guard spent a lot of time developing his college jump shot, focusing on release techniques and footwork. He acknowledges it was a huge adjustment.

"Everybody is good in high school," Taylor said. "In college, basketball is basically a full-time job. If you want to be one of the better players, you have to work on your game and be in good shape."

The athlete worked so hard, he finished the season as the Broncs’ leader in three-point percentage (41.5), which ranked third in the MAAC, while his 2.07 three-pointers per game ranked fifth-best in the conference. Taylor’s overall field-goal percentage jumped from 33 percent his rookie year to 46 percent this season.

Rider was a young team this year, with only two seniors among the seven players averaging 18 minutes or more a game. The starting backcourt featured Taylor and fellow sophomore Jerry Johnson. Freshmen Paul Johnson and Edwin Muniz also were key contributors.

The squad suffered from inconsistency during its 12-16 season. The Broncs opened a very respectable 5-3, but followed with a seven-game losing streak. Rider did regroup midseason by winning seven of its next nine games. But Friday’s loss to St. Peter’s was the team’s fourth straight.

Harnum doesn’t expect the struggles to last long, especially with his sophomore backcourt of Johnson and Taylor.

"As sophomores, I wouldn’t trade them in for any backcourt in the league," Harnum said.

It helps that Taylor is experienced at winning.

His CYO squad, St. Thomas Aquinas, clinched the championship when Taylor was in eighth grade.

The player had a sprained right ankle when Neumann lost in the title game his junior year, but he was back to record 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals in a 60-59 championship win over Roman Catholic the next season.

For his efforts, Taylor was named Second Team All-Catholic and All-City, as well as the Review‘s Male Athlete of the Year. The championship game was also special because the athlete had the chance to play with younger cousin Richard "Tabby" Cunningham, who stepped into emergency duty.

Cunningham is now a junior on Neumann’s team, while Taylor’s younger brother, Earl Pettis, is a freshman. As the basketball veteran of the group, Taylor is generous in giving both some pointers. The local athlete also talks regularly with his former high-school coach, Carl Arrigale, from whom he says he gets good advice.

The American Studies major hopes to use that advice as he tries to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament.

"Next year, we will probably be the best team in the league," Taylor said. "We are going to have a lot of young players back, experienced and ready for next year. The sky is the limit."

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