WEST LONG BRANCH-- Monmouth (8-6) has seen its season get off to a start that's exceeded expectations, but with CAA conference play beginning to open 2024, the Hawks knew that opening up strong may have people wondering if they're the top threat of the conference.

The Hawks were able to come away with their first win inside the Colonial Athletic Association, taking down Towson (7-7) by a score of 51-43, led by Xander Rice's 21-point performance in 39 minutes.

Rice shot 5-13 (1-5 from 3-point range) and 10 of 11 from the stripe to help lead the Hawks to an eight-point victory.

"I think the biggest thing for this team so far has been the ability to grow up," head coach King Rice said about the '24 Hawks. "You have Alexander who's never had to deal with being double-teamed and guarded left and right. Jaret and Abdi both are just starting to reach the surface. Jack's out there grabbing boards even when it's not his best shooting day. It's been a lot of things that have us seeing success so far."

Rice's day got started quickly for the Hawks, scoring five points to open up a 13-7 lead midway through the first half.

Jaret Valencia saw himself contributing on all sides of the court, scoring nine points while adding a strong presence on defense with three blocks.

As defense was the key to the game all throughout, it didn't stop Towson from gaining control of the game quickly. A 10-0 run saw Towson with a four-point lead with three minutes to go in the first half before Valencia was fed a beautiful pass by Rice to slam it in for two.

"Xander helps me a lot," Valencia said. "He's able to make stuff happen for us that it opens the floor for so many opportunities. Things sometimes gets frustrating for me on the court, being young and new to this. I didn't play basketball for two years. It was all training and working out so being back in this role is difficult, but we're making it work."

Both teams saw their offensive woes continue through the remainder of the first half, shooting a combined 16-for-61 from the field, but the Hawks saw a one-point lead at 21-20.

Jack Collins, who ended the day with six points and 13 rebounds, saw himself with a pivotal role early in the second half. Collins hit a mid-ranger and followed it up with a steal and layup, bringing the lead to 27-22 and forcing Towson to call a timeout.

“There’s so much growth happening with this group,” Rice said. “We’re not where we’re going to be in a month. If we continue to get better and everybody stays listening to the coaches instead of the outside stuff, we will have a chance when it’s all said and done to be one of the best teams.”

The Towson timeout saw Monmouth's lead dissipate and turn into a three-point hole with six minutes to play. As he's done all season long, Rice came up clutch with back-to-back mid-rangers, regaining a 39-38 lead. Rice followed it up with a crucial three-point shot in which he was fouled on, connecting on Monmouth's first shot from behind the arc.

“I feel like earlier on in my career I would have started pressing a little bit because I wasn’t shooting a lot and when I was I was rushing a little bit and wasn’t making them,” Xander Rice said. “But I think as an older guy, as a fifth-year guy that has been through a few conference seasons, I kind of knew what to expect and knew to stay patient and knew my teammates and coaches trust me and that the shots were going to come.”

Rice then saw himself back at the free throw line after being fouled on another three, connecting on all three shots from the line. The Hawks were able to prevail the remainder of the stretch, taking down Towson 51-43 for their first win inside conference play to move to 8-6 on the year.

The Hawks will be home on Monday to take on Northeastern (5-9), looking to win back-to-back games while continuing to find their true form inside the CAA.


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