EMMITSBURG — Junior Robinson embraced the outstretched arms of his mother, Monica, as they both sobbed away.
“My mom has always been there for me,” said Robinson, celebrating one of many profound moments that culminated after Mount St. Mary’s punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament in the 71-61 win over Saint Francis in the Northeast Conference tournament title on Tuesday night. “She’s been my biggest fan ever since I was younger. To be able to share that moment, it’s amazing. It’s beautiful.”
Robinson then vented about how his mother comforted him after he lost the state title game in his senior year of high school. But this encounter had a different taste: Bitterness then is now a sweet sensation.
“She was there for me,” he said. “I hugged her the same way, crying in her arms. I didn’t want it to end that way twice. When I cried in her arms this time, it was different. I am a momma’s boy.”
Moments before, Robinson’s backcourt mate, Elijah Long, formed a dog-pile at midcourt with players and fans alike joining the mound. The two — Long (24 points, nine rebounds) and Robinson (22 points) — inked a performance for the history books Tuesday, combining for 46 points and crusading the Mount (19-15) to its first conference tournament title at home, all being on national television (ESPN2).
“We worked so hard for this,” Robinson said. “For it to end like this, it’s amazing. I can’t explain the emotion I had. It was just happiness.”
Long, the NEC Tournament Most Valuable Player, then plopped alongside former University of Connecticut men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun for a nationally televised interview, saying the legendary coach indulge him with wisdom and encouragement.
“So surreal,” Long said.
The capacity crowd of 3,121 witnessed it all come to be for the first time in the institution’s 210-year existence, and every part of Tuesday night added to the cherry-on-top notion; even after trailing 31-23 at halftime amidst a lackluster 27 percent shooting.
“I love being down eight at the half with these guys,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “I told them, what a better story than that?”
It unfolded like a James Bond classic: showing signs of near death that lead into an instant revival, while maintaining an even keel attitude during tribulations. The 26-4 run to open the second half, offensive showmanship and the put-away fist to send them dancing was too predictable.
“[Coach Christian] came in the locker room and said, ‘Let’s go!,'” said Long, reciting the halftime scene. “He started clapping. We were all like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Sure enough, they came through, and eased the jitters of a soldout crowd eager to watch the host cut down the nets. Robinson upstarted the second half surge with five quick points to make it 31-28, still on in favor of Saint Francis, before two Long 3’s and a Wilson trey gave the Mount a lead it wouldn’t lose, 37-34.
Wilson reeled off a personal 5-0 burst to give the Mount an eight-point lead before Robinson bombed a rainbow 3 to make it 45-34.
Mount St. Mary’s never faltered after the 15 minute mark behind double-figure outings from Long, Robinson, Wilson (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Chris Wray (10 points, seven rebounds). The Mountaineers are 9-1 this year when four players score 10 points or more.
“The one thing I always say about this team, it’s the sum of all parts,” Christian said. “When we’re all locked in and playing together, we’re a tough team to stop.”
According to ESPN, Mount St. Mary’s is the fourth team since 1985 to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth after a 1-11 start. Really, though, it’s not surprising, even after being picked to finish fourth in their conference during preseason predictions.
Christian expressed earlier in the year that if you want “to be an elite team, you gotta have like whatever Tom Brady has.”
“You gotta have something you can’t put your finger on,” he said after the 77-70 win over Bryant on Feb. 2.
Christian is referring to continuity, the discipline factor of buying into the program and trusting the process.
Step No. 1 this past season was to configure a schedule that molded mental toughness. Dates against ranked West Virginia, Iowa State and Michigan emerged to form the core of the eighth hardest non-conference schedule in the nation according to KenPom.
Though they only mustered one win the first month and a half, the adversity set the table for the long haul.
That’s why they’ve risen from the middle of the pack to NCAA Tournament bound. There’s nobody fighting over limelight or starpower. There’s nobody complaining about how many touches come their way or how their box score look at the end. No one points fingers or hogs attention, nor stirs drama.
The final output, though still evolving, is sweeter than ever at Mount St. Mary’s, and if you need proof, watch the reactions after the end of Tuesday’s game.
Christian’s foundation is evident: Three NEC tournament games in his five years at the helm and heading the first Mount St. Mary’s basketball team to make two Division I NCAA Tournament appearances in a four-year span.
A 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament before. It’s bound to happen some day, just because records are made to be broken. And who knows if it may come this year, next year, five years from now or a century. No matter what happens, the door of opportunity will always remain open at Mount St. Mary’s, and through trials and tribulations, the end result will always be sweet.
“These guys don’t care if they start, they don’t care if they finish the game, they don’t care if they’re getting enough shots,” Christian said. “They just want to find a way to win.”