As Mount St. Mary's men's basketball coach Jamion Christian followed his team onto the court for Tuesday night's Northeast Conference championship game he could hear the cheers for the Mountaineers piercing through a rowdy crowd at the home arena of Robert Morris.
Those cheers would get louder and louder as the Mountaineers pulled away from the the top-ranked NEC powerhouse in the first half, and they reached a fever pitch as Mount St. Mary's earned a NCAA tournament berth with a 88-71 victory.
“We knew it was a tough environment. They have dominated there. The environment was really electric with a championship on the line,” Christian said in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “But our fans did an unbelievable job. We took about three buses up there from our campus and I thought our fans were louder than theirs. I thought they were way more energetic. They really had a sense of what this opportunity was for us and they really fueled us throughout the game. … It was really special.”
Playing on the Robert Morris campus in suburban Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first half. They shot 60.4 percent from the field on the night, including 44.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc, and five players scored in double figures. Senior guard Rashad Whack led the Mountaineers with 20 points.
By beating the Colonials, whom Christian said has had “a stranglehold over our league” for several years, the Emmitsburg school will make its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2008. After finishing the regular season with a 13-16 record (9-7 in the NEC), the fourth-seeded Mountaineers scored conference tournament wins over St. Francis and Wagner to advance to the NEC championship game, Christian's second in as many years as head coach.
Christian believes his team is better than the regular-season record indicated.
“Our team is really good at turning adversity into prosperity,” he said. “We’ve done that over my two years here. We have a great group of senior leadership here -- Sam Prescott, Julian Norfleet, Rashad Whack. I felt like we had some bad breaks during the year, that we had bad luck and the ball didn’t bounce our way sometimes. You lose a game or two that people think that you shouldn’t. But the reality is you’re playing in a tough conference that is very competitive top to bottom.”
He expects that the Mountaineers will have to go through one of the play-in games to reach the round of 64.
“We’re excited for the opportunity. We’ve played some great teams this year so we will be ready for whatever challenge is out there for us,” he said. “We’re going to be excited to wear our St. Mary’s uniforms one more time and show off our university and our basketball skills to the nation.”
Christian is giving the Mountaineers a couple of days to savor the victory and get away from basketball before they will return to practice Friday. They will find out their tournament path on Sunday evening.
When Christian, who played guard for Mount St. Mary's from 2000 to 2003, took the job at his alma mater, he told his wife that one reason he was willing to leave VCU, where he was an assistant, was that he thought the Mountaineers could quickly win games, compete for the NEC championship and get opportunities to play Cinderella.
“I didn’t think it would take two years, but I knew we could be competitive right away,” he said. “We’ve got a good blueprint for success here and we are going to continue to use it over the next couple of years. I’m really looking forward to having a chance to build this program.”
First things first, though,, Christian is excited to see how his Mountaineers perform at the Big Dance late this month.
“Our players aren’t afraid of the big moment,” Christian said.