BUFFALO, N.Y. – Before Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian sauntered through the north-end tunnel of KeyBank Center and back to the dressing room for the last time this season, he stopped and gazed at the jumbotron hanging from the rafters. With his eyes fixed on the final score that glowed above, the fifth-year coach winced, pondering on what could have been, but soon after coming to realization with what his team just did, he marched forward knowing there’s not much to dwell on.
The 16-seeded Mountaineers had America on the edge of their seats Thursday night, in arm’s length of completing a feat that’s never been attained in 129 attempts. Mount St. Mary’s, the tiny Frederick County institution bordered by pastureland, was taking it to the reigning national champions, Villanova, building an early eight-point lead and maintaining its lead for the entire first half. But once the Wildcats gained traction in the opening minutes of the second half, they dropped the hammer to terminate the magical moment.
The hardwood version of The Little Engine That Could ran out of steam, and No. 1 Villanova prevailed over Mount St. Mary’s, 76-56, improving top seeds to 130-0 against 16-seeds in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m really proud of our group,” Christian said. “I use that word ‘proud’ because they were tremendous in their ability to execute our gameplan and just really give this number one team a scare in the first half. We’ve got a lot of things we can work on and improve, but we’re expecting to learn from this experience like we’ve done time and time again and have an opportunity to improve on it.”
Mount St. Mary’s (20-16) opened the first six minutes of regulation on a 7-0 run and soon upped the lead to 10-2 less than a minute after an Elijah Long 3-pointer. Before Donte DiVincenzo’s jumper put Villanova on the board, the reigning national champions were 0-for-8 with two turnovers on their first 10 possessions. Chris Wray and Mawdo Sallah blocked three of the eight Villanova shot attempts, igniting the pocket of Mountaineer fans who trekked six-plus hours to witness the magical run.
“Honestly, we thought they were going to try to come in and punch us in the face right away. That wasn’t the case.” said Long, the sophomore guard who finished with 10 points on 3-for-16 shooting, while adding four assists.
After Long pushed the Mountaineers’ lead to eight, Villanova cut it to 10-7 on a Jalen Brunson (14 points, five rebounds, three assists) layup and Josh Hart (11 points, five rebounds) trey. But Mount St. Mary’s never relented, and held five-point leads of 12-7, 14-9, 16-11 and 18-13 after free throws from Long and Miles Wilson (game-high 22 points, seven rebounds), a Wray (six points, four rebounds) stepback jumper to beat the shot clock buzzer and Sallah (six points, three rebounds) layup. It was now almost seven minutes until halftime, and Mount St. Mary’s still remained in control, weathering the chiseled Villanova frontline on national television.
“I feel like we shouldn’t have to back down from anyone,” Junior Robinson, the 5-foot-5 point guard, said. “After putting on a jersey, they play the game the same way we do. There’s no backing down.”
Even after Villanova knotted it at 18-18 when Kris Jenkins (seven points on 2-for-13 shooting) converted all three of his free throw attempts, the Mountaineers had an answer. Wilson, tucked deep in the right corner, received a swing-pass from Long and canned a 3 that propelled them ahead once more, 21-18. When Villanova twice made it a one-point game, Wray maneuvered through the hulking Wildcat frontcourt to extend the Mountaineers lead to 23-20 and Wilson’s two free throws made it 25-22.
Even after Eric Paschall’s emphatic two-handed slam and Hart’s layup, which gave the Wildcats edges of 26-25 and 28-27, a Sallah jumper and up-and-under lay-in by Wilson gave Mount St. Mary’s a 29-28 advantage 24 seconds until halftime.
“Some people might say Villanova didn’t play their best in the first half. On the contrary, I thought we controlled the tempo and played very well,” Christian said. “And there’s another team on the other side of that who dominated that pace and that tempo, made them have to take one shot and get out.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright subsequently called a timeout to draw up a play that ran Brunson off a screen at the top of the key and to the rim for the go-ahead layup before the halftime buzzer. After 20 minutes, the Wildcats clung to a 30-29 lead, and were just as impressed as anyone.
“I just want to compliment Jamion and his team,” Wright said. “They were just great. They really outplayed us.
“We, just at the end, had more size and some more talented players that just made plays. But they were better prepared. Jamion had them better prepared than I did, and they played better. We just had bigger, better athletes. But they were a great team. I thought they were the better team tonight. And they deserve a lot of credit; a lot of credit.”
Mount St. Mary’s took the lead for one last time on its opening possession of the second half, 31-30, when Sallah rolled off a screen and finished a Robinson dish at the rim before Villanova stepped on the gas.
For the next seven minutes, the Wildcats ran off a 21-4 run to swell the lead to 51-35 with under 13 minutes to go. Mount St. Mary’s went 2-for-10 with three turnovers during the deciding stretch. In the end, they shot 37 percent (21-for-57), but 34 percent in the second half (11-for-32) and 24 percent from behind the arc (5-for-21), squandering a dubious chance at history. Villanova, meanwhile, shot 52 percent overall (31-for-60) and 63 percent in the second half (19-for-30).
“In a game like this, you have to make shots,” said Robinson, who only mustered seven points on 3-for-9 shooting. “Coach said we didn’t make a lot of shots. I mean, we missed a lot.”
On Wednesday, Christian said the target for 3-pointers was 12 or more. The Mount only made five on Thursday, seven short of the benchmark.
“If we made a few more of those, man, we would be right there,” Robinson continued.
Say if seven more Mountaineers 3’s dropped, that’s 21 more points. And in the end, the Mount lost by 20.
“One day we’re going to catch a team,” Robinson said. “We’re going to be on fire.”
Even after they were down 16, the Mount responded with a 5-0 swing to draw it to 11 with just under 11 minutes left and hung there until the seven-minute mark before Villanova put the game on ice.
When reporters swamped Wright in the postgame presser, eagerly digging for an explanation – why the little Northeast Conference university led for nearly half of Thursday’s Round of 64 contest – there wasn’t one.
“I honestly don’t have an answer,” Wright said. “If I came up with something, I would be BS’ing you. … I do think some of it was Mount St. Mary’s. I really do.”
In the end, and for the 130th time in a row, a top-seed prevailed over a 16-seed. But if there’s any indication with what the future may hold, especially with the Mount returning all five starters and more, the road ahead is telling to say the least.
“It’s going to happen,” Christian said of a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. “The distance between 1 and 16, as you saw tonight, is closing down. They may have bigger bodies than us. But the heart of athletes and the heart of teams is getting better and better. The gap is really closing.”
For the better part of Thursday night in Buffalo, it appeared the gap had finally closed. A shot at history was there, right in front of them, actually. Mount St. Mary’s just never corralled the dreamy moment.
“What’s crazy about me, I wanted the 16-seed,” Christian said. “I really wanted that.”