Men's basketball: Mount arrived in NEC final a year ahead of schedule

Jamion Christian spends the better part of most games standing at the edge of the coach's box, arms folded, peering out at the court.

His face is often scrunched and contorted as he watches the game action, looking mildly displeased, as if perhaps he has detected a foul odor in the air.

That look is just concentration, however, and it belies the big-picture enjoyment and satisfaction he took away from his first season as the head coach at Mount St. Mary's, his alma mater which overachieved and nearly won the Northeast Conference a year ahead of even the most optimistic outsiders' timetable.

"I love our team. I've loved what we've been able to accomplish this year," Christian said shortly after his team lost 91-70 at LIU Brooklyn in the NEC championship game Tuesday.

While the Mountaineers still have an outside shot at a College Basketball Invitational bid, chances are their season ended that night at 18-14 in, as Christian put it, a game in which no one outside of the Mount locker room figured his team would be playing.

His Mountaineers' 18 wins not only more than doubled the eight posted by the previous year's MSM team, they also represented the third-most since Mount St. Mary's made the jump to Division I in 1988-89.

A so-so campaign turned into a most memorable one thanks to a regular season-ending seven-game winning streak that stretched to nine with upset road wins at Bryant and top-seeded Robert Morris in the NEC tourney.

The league championship (and the NCAA tournament berth that comes with it) which had seemed unthinkable six weeks earlier when the team was 2-6 in conference play, seemed almost likely when the Mountaineers jumped out to an early eight-point lead in the ESPN2-televised title game.

From there, the shots that had been falling for more than a month began rimming out and the lapses on defense that had been manageable became costly, and LIU Brooklyn edged out to a halftime lead and then pulled away in the opening minutes of the second half.

Julian Norfleet, the junior who sacrificed his scoring by moving from shooting guard to point guard at midseason and then made a remarkable comeback from a serious ankle sprain in the NEC semifinals to start in the final, talked after the game about pain that had nothing to do with his injury.

"Mostly the pain of being knocked out of this game and just seeing that confetti going up in the air and seeing Long Island with that trophy," Norfleet said. "That just speaks to how hard we have to work this summer and I think we get the picture of what it takes."

Indeed, while Christian would dearly like to be preparing for a first-round NCAA game right now, he's at least glad his players got to feel what success feels like come close to achieving their goal.

"This year, they got a taste of it, of how good we can be," Christian said. "But next year they're not only going to have the expectation but they're going to be working in the summertime and the fall toward that expectation.

"I can't say how important it is to have the level, to have that bar risen that you're working for. ... None of these guys knew where the bar was. Now we have a strong idea of where the bar is and that's going to make us work harder."

Realistically, next season, when the Mountaineers expect to have five seniors, is the one they were building toward. While some additional attrition is always possible, 10 of the Mount's top 11 players in terms of scoring and minutes could return.

That includes the junior guard trio of Norfleet (10.8 points, team-best 3.2 assists per game) Rashad Whack (team-best 13.9 points per game, team-best 2.1 steals per game) and Sam Prescott (11.1 points, team-best 4.2 rebounds per game), as well as NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins (9.6 points, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals per game).

The Mount went 8-1 with those four starting. The quartet accounted for 64 percent of the team's scoring and also was responsible for much of the full-court-pressing, fastbreaking, 3-point-shooting style of play Christian dubbed "mayhem."

An offense that took half the season to get going averaged 80 points per game during the winning streak.

"It's hard to scout it because you count help off on anybody. We shoot a lot of 3s and a lot of us can do it real well," Wiggins said.

Added Norfleet: "If you take one person out, it doesn't matter because we have so many scorers."

Sixth-man Kelvin Parker is expected back, too, as are big men Kristijan Krajina and Taylor Danaher, both of whom played key minutes. (Swingman Xavier Owens and point guard Josh Castellanos both logged a lot of starts during the season, but played little during the late-season run.)

Post player Raven Barber was the lone scholarship senior on the squad and he talked excitedly before the NEC tournament began about the program's future.

"I think they're going to be better than we are this year - they'll have another year [in the system]," Barber said. "I'm the only one gone. I think they're going to still be on the same page."

Staying on the same page seems to be the key. Christian repeatedly said that this year's Mountaineers began winning only when they began to truly understand about sharing the ball and being unselfish.

Prescott said being even better next season won't be a problem "as long as we stay dedicated, work hard and stay humble."

Christian stayed almost unfailingly positive this season, talking far more about what his players did well than their shortcomings.

That doesn't mean he couldn't be tough. He ran rugged practices, particularly in the preseason as he conditioned his players to be ready for the mayhem that was to follow.

And he got after them when he felt he needed to. He did so following their regular-season finale in what he called his "Tiger Woods moment," critical even after they'd topped 100 points for the first time in 18 years. The ESPN cameras also caught him expressively trying to motivate his players during the NEC final loss.

For the most part, however, he remained optimistic and he got his players to believe in themselves and his system. The result was a 10-game increase in victories and a run to the NEC final that few believed possible from a team that was picked by rival coaches to finish ninth in the league.

"It's amazing," Christian said. "When your guys buy in to doing whatever the team needs to be successful, they always exceed your expectations."

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