EMMITSBURG – After having the ninth-toughest non-conference schedule nationally and going the entire month of November without a home game last year, Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian decided to lighten up the opening track this season by cutting down travel and creating more high-leverage opportunities for his 12 freshmen.
Last year, the Mount’s November included the likes of West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas, and the first regular season game at Knott Arena didn’t happen until December 7. This November, the Mount have already traveled to Marquette, Notre Dame, Georgetown and South Carolina to face North Florida, and on Tuesday, they had its earliest home-opener in three years against Division III York College (Pa.).
Though the Mountaineers struggled to play its up-tempo style amid a choppy pace plagued by fouls, the 91-80 win against York allowed Christian to test his youth in adverse situations and experiment with rotations as tough, but winnable games against Ohio, Morgan State and Loyola await. The Mount also unveiled both Northeast Conference championship banners won this past year in front of 1,290 spectators.
For the fifth game in a row, Christian rolled with senior point guard Junior Robinson, freshman guard Donald Carey, redshirt guard Jonah Antonio, freshman forward Bobby Planutis and sophomore center Ryan Gomes as the starting five. Senior forward Chris Wray remains sidelined as he recovers from a broken wrist. Wray said after the game he has a doctor’s appointment Monday and hopes to get cleared then. Once Wray returns, Planutis figures to slide to the bench and play as a reserve guard.
In the first half alone Tuesday, Christian experimented 14 different rotations with 10 players receiving some kind of playing time.
“The good thing is, we have a good, deep roster and guys can play a lot of different positions,” Christian said. “So, we have the ability to do that. I thought it was an opportunity to play our guys in different spots. So, sometimes we looked a little unorganized tonight, just because we have a guy or two in there we’re not accustomed to having.”
Like the previous four games, senior shooting guard Greg Alexander came off the bench and replaced Planutis roughly two minutes into regulation. Two minutes after that, with a 9-2 lead, fellow freshmen forwards Omar Habwe and Ace Stallings checked in the game for Robinson and Gomes.
Habwe, who finished the night with seven points and six rebound in a career-high 23 minutes, pulled down an offensive rebound and made a jumper to push the lead to 11-5 early on. Stallings, who only played six minutes in a fluctuating role, converted a pivotal three-point play after York had drawn to within five and upped the Mount’s cushion to 17-9 with 11:43 to play in the first half.
On the next possession, Carey canned a 3-pointer to cap an 11-2 Mount (2-3) run, which pushed the lead to 20-9.
Freshmen walk-ons Brandon Leftwich and 6-foot-7 forward Ross Young also saw time in the first half. Leftwich, who provides Christian a ball-handler off the bench, had one turnover and one personal foul in 27 seconds. Young is a scrappy power forward who adds depth to the frontcourt and finished with one offensive rebound in three minutes. Both walk-ons entered when the game was within two possessions; another testament to Christian’s night of testing.
The line of Robinson, Antonio, Carey, Habwe and Alexander – a small-ball approach, with Habwe being the tallest of the five at 6-foot-6 – played the most out of any other rotation in the first half, before the Mount staked a 36-30 advantage at the break.
“I feel like we’re in a pretty good spot with our rotation,” Christian said. “I feel like with the rotation, we’re getting closer, but we’re not where we need to be at right now. I still have a little bit of work to do before we get to conference play on that.”
A main reason why Christian is tinkering and exploiting his depth is he wants starters to play in 32 minutes or less to preserve freshness as the grueling season trudges along. Alexander, a senior who excelled in the sixth-man role during the Mount’s NCAA Tournament run, is cemented as the sixth-man once again this winter. He added 15 points off the bench Tuesday, and through five games is averaging a third-best 11.4 points per game and 36.4 percent from deep.
“He’s ridiculously talented at being the sixth man,” Christian said. “He’s gotten used to that’s what our team needs when he comes in. … He led the league in 3-pointers made last year off the bench. I like having that guy, a bench who outscores the other. … Those are little ways you try to win the game.”
On the night, both teams combined for 53 personal fouls and 56 free throws as rhythm and pace were frequently disrupted with whistles.
“I thought both teams played really hard. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes it’s a war of attrition, where you’ve got to be able to withstand the foul trouble,” Christian said. “If you want to be a good team, you got to learn how to play in a punchers game. You got to learn how to scrap it out.”
In the first month of the season, it’s evident Christian’s focal point is on the defensive end of the floor, where they’ve allowed 54.1 percent baskets overall and 38.4 percent 3-pointers from its opposition, both extremely high clips. York, considered as one of the premier Division III programs nationally, entered the game averaging 93.5 points a game on 48.3 percent shooting and 37.3 percent from deep. The Mount held them to 39.4 percent overall (26-for-66), including a 28.2 percent (11-for-39) and 11.8 percent from deep (2-for-17) in the first half.
“That was our best half of defense we played all year,” Christian said. “We’ll continue to get better at that.”
Antonio, who hasn’t had the best start to his college career (27.8 percent shooting overall, 25 percent from deep), finished with a career-high 23 points (6-for-9 from deep) and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes.
When York brought it to 25-22 with 5:22 left in the first half, his two 3-pointers helped cap a 9-2 run that gave the Mount a 34-24 lead. He also hit four second-half treys, which provided the Mount leads of 70-51, 74-60, 83-70 and 86-73. Last Wednesday at Georgetown, Antonio shot 2-for-15.
“I think I’m just getting accustomed to the college game, just finding my shot, the same rhythm with my coaches and stuff,” Antonio said. “But I have great teammates. Don had 12 assists tonight, probably half my 3’s or more came from him. Credit to my teammates, especially Don.”
Carey added a double-double with 11 points and 12 assists. Robinson led the Mount in scoring in all five games with 27 points. Planutis and Gomes grabbed five rebounds, respectively.
This is the Mount’s second win a row after its 84-81 thriller against North Florida on Saturday in which Robinson made the game-winning layup with 35 seconds to go. At this point a year ago, the Mount were just past halfway through a rigorous nine-game road stand to open the season that spanned thousands of miles in traveling. Next Monday versus Morgan State, before a roadtrip to take on Ohio on Friday, they’ll play in their second home game in three contests.
“Shoot, at this point last year, we had four more games left on the road,” Christian said. “I think a lot of the energy we have right now is nervous energy, just because we have so many guys fitting into new roles, fitting into new situations they might now have been in before. … I think If we continue to put ourselves in more scenarios, if we feel confident or being able to feel in that moment and learn from it and learn and then we can excel, I think if we get comfortable with that, we’ll get there.”