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.”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 15, 2017
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.”
Rise up, Junior Robinson! The shortest player in D-I (5-5) scored 23 to lead Mount St. Mary's to a First Four NCAA tournament win. pic.twitter.com/Di6MNh2Af6
— ESPN (@espn) March 15, 2017
“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.”
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) March 15, 2017
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.”