There can be multiple turning points in a college basketball team’s season, and Mount St. Mary’s just wrapped one up Thursday night.
The Mount came home last week following back-to-back road games to start the Northeast Conference slate, only to even its record with two wins in three days leading into Thursday’s matchup with Sacred Heart. The Mountaineers came out shooting, survived a pair of long scoreless stretches, and held on to defeat the Pioneers 81-75 at Knott Arena for a third consecutive victory.
And perhaps a spot in the schedule coach Jamion Christian and his players will view as a springboard.
“We did what we needed to do on the homestand with those three games,” said Christian, whose team got back to .500 overall (9-9) and improved to 3-2 in the NEC. “I was just excited about our team putting it together there and finding a way to get a victory.”
The Mount came home Jan. 4 to play Bryant in a game featuring the two teams tied for last place in the conference, and prevailed. Central Connecticut came to Knott Arena on Jan. 6, and MSM greeted its visitors with 11 3-pointers in the second half en route to victory.
Sacred Heart (6-12 1-4) trailed by as many as 20 points Thursday, but the Pioneers did their best to make a game of it in the second half.
Mount St. Mary’s opened the second half with five field goals on its first five possessions, and Greg Alexander capped the run by sinking a 3 from the left wing while drawing a foul. His free throw gave the Mount a 55-39 lead with 16:25 to play, and the home team built its lead to 62-45 four minutes later.
The Mountaineers then went scoreless for nearly eight minutes, and Sacred Heart capitalized.
Joseph Lopez’s putback with 8:31 remaining cut MSM’s lead to 62-52, and Christian burned a timeout to settle his players. It didn’t help all that much, and the Pioneers kept chipping away.
A layup from De’von Barnett with 4:51 to go made it 62-58. That’s when the Mountaineers ended their drought, however. Bobby Planutis got fouled after two missed MSM jumpers, and drained both free throws at the 4:29 mark.
Sacred Heart was in the double-bonus the rest of the way, which gave the Mount 16 free throws down the stretch — the Mountaineers made 13 of them and held on for the win.
MSM’s Junior Robinson scored 23 points, and made 14 of 17 free throws to offset a poor shooting night (4-for-13). Donald Carey, Robinson’s freshman backcourt mate, scored 14 points, while Jonah Antonio netted 13.
Alexander finished with 12 points, and Chris Wray grabbed seven rebounds.
“We have a bunch of good scorers on our team,” Robinson said. “If I’m having an off night I don’t really worry about it. I’m about playing for everyone else.”
Mount St. Mary’s led 39-19 with 5:41 to go in the half when Sacred Heart climbed back into it.
The Pioneers embarked on an 11-0 run while MSM went cold and missed six consecutive field goals against a zone defense. When Sean Hoehn converted a three-point play with 57 seconds to go, Sacred Heart trailed 39-30.
The Mount finally answered, however — a kickout pass from Wray to Antonio, open on the right side behind the arc, resulted in a 3, and the Mountaineers led 42-30 at halftime.
Lopez, one of the top players in the NEC, went scoreless in the first half. He played 10 minutes, went 0-for-2 from the field, and grabbed three rebounds. Lopez came into the game averaging 13.5 points and 9.1 boards per game, and finished with six points.
The Mount’s offense gained its spark early in the first half when Sacred Heart’s Kinnon LaRose committed a flagrant foul against Robinson following a turnover. Robinson streaked toward the basket on a potential fast-break, but LaRose met him near the left wing of the 3-point line with hard contact.
Robinson made a pair of free throws, cutting Sacred Heart’s lead to 6-5, and Planutis followed with a 3-pointer. The Pioneers committed another turnover at the other end, and this time Antonio connected from long range.
Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina called a timeout, and Mount St. Mary’s led 14-6.
The Mountaineers stretched their lead to 25-11 with 12:21 remaining in the half — consecutive 3s from Antonio, Omar Habwe, and Robinson were part of a 24-5 run from the point of the flagrant foul.