The ball was not bouncing Elijah Long’s way. But with two minutes to go, that changed.
After several opportunities around the rim went awry for Long, he then missed two go-ahead free throws with just under three minutes remaining. Not flustered, Long took over when the game was on the line, as he helped Mount St. Mary’s defeat Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference tournament semifinal on Saturday at the Knott Arena.
With the Mountaineers (18-15) trailing 64-63 with 1:56 to play, Long drove past his defender and convert the layup to give his team a one-point advantage. Two possessions later, Long made a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 50 seconds remaining to extend the lead to four. The dagger came when Long rebounded a missed 3 from Matty McConnell and passed ahead to Junior Robinson for a fast break layup that put the game out of reach.
“Sometimes it’s not going to go your way,” Long said. “I put in the work, and the time, and the effort. So it’s going to fall when it needs to.”
Long’s performance in key moments rivaled Robinson’s performance in Wednesday night’s close win over Sacred Heart, when he scored or assisted on eight of the last nine points for Mount St. Mary’s.
“It’s great to have somebody that you can depend on in the backcourt if you’re not going [well],” Robinson said. “It’s hard to stop two of us at the same time.”
The game was closely contested throughout, especially the final eight minutes which saw no team leading by more than three points until the Mountaineers pulled away with 41 seconds remaining.
Mount St. Mary’s struggled throughout in the first half with turnovers, with 11 of their 17 miscues coming before halftime. Despite the turnovers, and a 14-5 run reeled off by Robert Morris, which came after the Mountaineers had evened the game at 21-all, Mount St. Mary’s found themselves down only four, 35-31, going into the half.
Robinson, who had 18 points, gave the Mountaineers their first second half lead at 40-39 with just over 16 minutes remaining, when he made three free throws after being fouled on an attempted 3-point attempt.
The Colonials, despite trailing by six on two occasions within the final 10 minutes, took the lead after McConnell stole an inbounds pass and connected on a 3 which gave them a 60-58 lead thanks to five points scored in seven seconds.
After missing the first of two potential go-ahead free throws with 2:51 to go, Long’s attempt to tie the game also bounced off the rim, and the ball was then gathered by Greg Alexander who muscled in a pivotal put-back layup.
After Long’s three pointer put the Mountaineer’s ahead by four, the Colonials made two shots of their own at the line to bring the score to 68-66 with 43 seconds to play.
Following a timeout, Chris Wray was fouled before the inbounds pass was thrown. Wray—who stepped to the line as a 30 percent free throw shooter on the season, and now shoots free throws with one hand—was able to make both shots to make the score 70-66.
“I tell Chris all the time, he’s going to make them when they matter,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “If there’s a situation that presents itself, [Chris] can find a way to overcome it, no matter what happens.”
With the win, Mount St. Mary’s advanced to the Northeast Conference tournament championship game where they will play Saint Francis (Pa.) University on March 7 at the Knott Arena. This will be the first time in program history that Mount St. Mary’s hosts their conference final game.
On the cusp of clinching an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Christian will continue to instill the mindset of finishing the journey in his young team.
“The ride is incomplete,” Christian said. “I wish people could see how hard these guys work, every single day. But again if we don’t finish it off, we’re going to be judged from how we move on from here on out.”