EMMITSBURG — The shots weren’t falling, the offense was sputtering, the sellout crowd was restless and the deficit was eight. Then, the first half buzzer sounded and the players left the court for halftime. From there, it was Mount St. Mary’s game for the taking.
“[Coach Christian] came in and was like ‘would you guys believe me if I told you, we got these guys right where we want them?” Chris Wray said of Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian’s halftime message.
The Mountaineers opened the second half on a 22-3 run and reversed their first half fortunes. The momentous stretch propelled Mount St. Mary’s to an NCAA Tournament berth with a 71-61 win in the Northeast Conference championship over St. Francis University on Tuesday night at the Knott Arena.
After being down by eight points at halftime, Junior Robinson, 22 points (18 in the second half), ignited the eventual run by scoring the first five points of the second half before Elijah Long (24 points) connected on back-to-back 3-pointers, sandwiched around a layup from Keith Braxton, to give the Mountaineers (19-15) a 34-33 lead.
This lead change proved to be the only time the lead changed hands in the second half thanks to the onslaught of points scored by the host team.
The run spanned from the beginning of the second half to just under 12 minutes remaining in regulation, which saw the Mountaineers erase an eight-point deficit and take a 45-34 lead.
St. Francis’ deficit wound up being insurmountable as they were only able to cut it to as low as nine points due to Mount St. Mary’s converting on 53 percent of their second half shots, including five 3’s to go along with 15 made free throws.
The game opened up with high energy for the home team as the Mountaineers jumped out to a 19-9 lead, due in large part to Elijah Long scoring 10 of the team’s first 19 points.
The driving force of the half, however, was Saint Francis stifling the Mountaineer offense to 27 percent shooting. St. Francis took a 22-21 lead when Keith Braxton scored a second chance layup with just over five minutes left in the first half.
The Red Flash ended the half on a 22-4 run as the Mountaineers missed 12 of their final 14 field goals attempts and turn the ball over three times in the final eight minutes. Mount St. Mary’s also missed their first 10 3-point attempts.
“I love to compete,” Christian said. “I love being down eight at the half with these guys.”
The trust that Christian had in his players in that situation was quickly fortified with results as his team came out firing on all cylinders.
After Long made his go-ahead 3, Isiah Blackmon brought the game to a 34-all tie by making one free throw.
From there, freshman Miles Wilson, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds, took over the game for about a 90 second stretch as he scored eight straight points, including two 3’s from the corner to give his team a 42-34 lead.
The decisive second half run concluded when Robinson’s high-arching 3 from the top of the key dropped to push the Mountaineers’ lead to 45-34 with under 12 to go.
The optimistic soldout crowd of 3,121 turned into palpable excitement as the clock ticked down. Robinson dribbled out the final seconds as the home fans began the conference championship festivities. After the buzzer sounded, Robinson fell to the ground, and fans stormed the court.
“I was just so happy,” Robinson said. “We work so hard for this, and for it to end like this is amazing.”
Robinson and Long were both named to the Northeast Conference All-Tournament Team. Long earned MVP honors after he averaged 21.7 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.3 steals per game during the conference tournament.
Mount St. Mary’s now awaits their tournament seeding and destination, which will be announced on March 12 during the Selection Sunday show.
“I love this team.” Christian said. “We played a high major schedule in the non-conference for a reason, and we played well in those games.”