May 21, 2018

Mount St. Mary’s embraces ‘why not us?’ mindset into tilt with top-seeded Villanova

Junior Robinson (0), the shortest player in college basketball at 5-foot-5, looks to lead Mount St. Mary's to upset of the century. Courtesy photo.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — History says today is where the road ends. In 128 tries, a 16-seed has never upended a top-seed. So after a reporter hinted that Thursday is the end for Mount St. Mary’s — when the 16-seeded Mountaineers tussle with top-seeded Villanova — Junior Robinson leaned back in his chair while flashing a smirk, and answered unhesitantly.

“Records are meant to be broken,” he said. “We have that confidence going into this game. If we take care of things the way we’re supposed to and handle ourselves in the manner that we can, why not [us]?”

Beneath the response was a light-hearted snicker. Not out of arrogance, but more so out of expectation, that the question was bound to arise. Robinson, standing at 5-foot-5 — officially the shortest player in Division I college basketball — has faced doubt his entire life.

It’s nothing new to the junior guard from Mebane, N.C. If anything, the more skepticism that surfaces, the larger the output. Robinson is averaging 14.3 points and 2.9 assists this season, but in the Northeast Conference championship game, he dropped 22, and put up 23 points on a sparkling 9-for-14 shooting performance in the First Four matchup with New Orleans. 

“I’ve embraced it,” Robinson said. “It’s a chip on my shoulder, to prove people wrong. That height doesn’t matter. It’s the heart you have and the passion you play the game with. I mean, every game, I’m going to be the shortest player on the court. I just have to come out and play with the heart I have.”

His recent play has caught the attention of well-known Baltimore-native Muggsy Bogues, a former 5-foot-3 point guard who played 14 years in the NBA. The 2017 NBA hall-of-fame nominee said he’s “proud” of Robinson having the “confidence to play at that level.”

“It’ll be exciting to watch [Junior] get another shot to put his team on his shoulders and get another upset,” Bogues said. “It don’t just go with size. By him having that skill set and mindset and knowing he change the outcome of the game, he knows he can carry his team. … I’m proud of him that he has that confidence to play at that level, to get a Division I scholarship and play for Mount St. Mary’s, a program that always had the ability to pull an upset.”

“It’s a magnet, when you hear about a small guy out there, pursuing his dream and showcasing his talent and letting folks know he’s capable of playing at any level. It’s just unbelievable. It’ll be exciting to watch [Junior] get another shot to put his team on his shoulders and get another upset. It don’t just go with the size. By him having that skill set and mind set and knowing he can change the outcome of the game, he knows he can carry his team. No matter what, he’s capable of still getting the job done. Little guys have a place in this game. It’s guard-oriented, and when you find a way and find a niche, you can become unstoppable. That’s what he’s finding out. He knows he can play with just the best. If you play with the best and have success against the best, then you’ve got to be included with the best. I’m proud of him that he has that confidence to play at that level, to get a Division I scholarship and play for Mount St. Mary’s, a program that always had the ability to pull an upset. Especially with how the game is being played today, I’m loving the things that he’s doing.” — Muggsy Bogues, a 2017 NBA hall-of-fame nominee

Mount St. Mary’s (20-15) has practically everything under the sun stacked up against them in their 7:10 pm tilt with defending national champions Villanova at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y., tonight. To give themselves the best chance at competing, they’re going to have to follow Robinson’s modus operandi affirmed by Bogues: “Just have to come out and play with heart.”

“I don’t think anyone would’ve guessed we played Villanova,” said Mount St. Mary’s sophomore guard Elijah Long, the team’s leading scorer at 15.1 points a game. He’s also averaging 5.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 39.5 percent from deep. “But it is March Madness. It’s a humbling experience, but then again, they’re just human beings, just like us, you know what I mean? We’re going to out there and play.”

ESPN’s basketball power index gives the Mount a 1 percent chance of prevailing, and Villanova deploys a pair of starters from their national team a year ago in Josh Hart (Silver Spring, Md., native) and Kris Jenkins (Upper Marlboro, Md., native). But all of that goes out of the window once they step into the ring a few minutes past the 7 o’clock hour, and whatever happens between the lines for 40 minutes is all that matters. 

“We have to go out and be us, play our game,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “It’s five guys on the floor. When the ball jumps up, the team who plays the best on any given day has the opportunity to win.”

Prepping for the defending champions doesn’t seem to faze anyone on the Mount, probably because they trekked through the ninth toughest non-conference in the country, according to KenPom. They played against six NCAA tournament teams — West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan, Arkansas and Bucknell — going 0-6 in the those games and losing by an average of 19 points. 

The Mount put up respectable fights in all six of those games. They hung with ranked Michigan for most of the first half before a 17-2 run sank them for good. They outscored Iowa State in the second half and were within single-digits of Arkansas for majority of the contest.

Since starting 1-11, the Mountaineers are 19-4 and riding a five-game winning streak.

“I have such a great belief in the guys we have on our roster,” Christian said. “We’ve challenged ourselves to the highest levels we could this season; playing six NCAA tournament teams, playing on the road against some of the very best. You have to believe at some point your preparation has you ready for the moment.”

Robinson added on the brutal non-conference schedule: It was hectic. Fun, too. Now we get to play another game tomorrow night.”

While Mount St. Mary’s is one of the worst rebounding teams in the country, they deploy a top-100 defense in terms of points allowed. Capping the well-oiled Villanova offense to under 40 percent shooting seems like an ideal step number one in order to pull off the upset, but don’t bet on it. To counter, Christian set a benchmark of 15 3-pointers.

If that mark isn’t reached, Robinson, Long and company are going to have to find another way.  

“It’s going to be a really hard fought game,” Robinson said. “We’re going to make it a grind-it-out game. We have to come out and try compete with them at the highest level we can compete at.”

It’s no secret: Villanova is a powerhouse, a heavyweight that wears down oppositions before doling the knockout blow. The small, historic Frederick County institution has made it this far. Can they withstand 40 more minutes with the most punishing of them all?

“I don’t think they ever take a possession off, defensively or offensively,” Long said. “We have to match that intensity. And then, you never know what can happen at the end.”

About Kyle McFadden 416 Articles
Kyle McFadden is a graduate from Linganore High School's Class of 2014, a sports junkie and general news-hound. He got his start as a sports writer in January 2014 for Linganore's student-run newspaper The Lance, where he wrote 13 articles. McFadden then launched his own blog in October 2014 called The Beltway Dispatch covering collegiate, local high school and professional sports. Formally known as The Beltway Dispatch, McFadden and Evan Engelhard merged respective platforms in June 2015 to make what is now Maryland Sports Access. With baseball, basketball and golf experience, McFadden brings ample knowledge to the helm of MSA. McFadden covers a wide variety of sports in football, baseball, basketball, golf, hockey, lacrosse, soccer and specializes in the collegiate and high school levels. McFadden volunteers his time at Damascus Road Community Church -- serving as a mentor to the youth, basketball coach at the varsity and junior varsity levels, and leads a small group of high school sophomores every Wednesday night. Although he's only been around journalism since January 2014, he's a high school sports reporter for The Baltimore Sun and freelancer for The Frederick News-Post. McFadden's work has also appeared in DMV newspapers The Aegis, The Capital Gazette, The Daily Times (Delmarva Now), The Hometown Observer, Howard County Times, Germantown Pulse and The Towson Times. He's also won two Mike Powell Excellence in Journalism awards and has appeared on The Best of SNO, which showcases top student work of high school and college journalists. McFadden currently studies at Frederick Community College and plans to transfer to the University of Maryland in the fall of 2018 to work on a bachelor's degree in journalism with aspirations to be a national college basketball writer.
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