NEW YORK - Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian pulled Julian Norfleet close for a long, affectionate embrace as his point guard left the court with 20.8 seconds remaining of Tuesday night's Northeast Conference title game against LIU Brooklyn.
Moments later, Christian was shepherding all of his players to the locker room, safely out of the way as the home fans swarmed the host Blackbirds, who were celebrating with the championship trophy at midcourt as confetti rained, ESPN cameras catching it all.
Despite a spark given to them by Norfleet's return from injury, the Mountaineers' nine-game winning streak came to an abrupt end as they struggled to handle either the LIU zone or the pressure of the national stage, and the Blackbirds became the first team in NEC history to take three consecutive league titles, winning 91-70.
"A little bit of that [performance] is not understanding and recognizing the moment," Christian said. "Our guys got a little antsy."
The Mount actually led for most of the first half, but LIU took control with a 13-0 run bridging halftime.
"In these games, because of the emotion behind it and the stakes are so high, sometimes if you don't execute for three or four possessions in a row the game can get out of hand a little bit," said Christian, whose team fell to 18-14.
Five players reached double figures for the Mount, led by Sam Prescott's 19 points. NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins scored 13, all in the second half. But the Mountaineers shot just 39.7 percent from the field, with season scoring leader Rashad Whack going 3 for 15.
Norfleet scored 10 points and had six assists three days after spraining his ankle and declaring himself unlikely to play Tuesday.
"I just kind of iced and extended it, just tried to work it out to the point that I could play," he said. "It was painful, but it's the championship game so I just tried to push through it. It kind of affected my jump shot a little bit."
Tournament MVP C.J. Garner scored a career-high 31 points and NEC Player of the Year Jamal Olasawere had 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Blackbirds (20-13) into the NCAA tournament. The Mount allowed LIU to shoot 61.4 percent from the field.
"There are very few championship games where you'll see the winner with defensive numbers like that," Christian said.
The fifth-seeded Mountaineers were trying for their fourth NEC title, having won in 1995, 1999 and 2008. They hadn't lost since Feb. 6 and prevailed five times on the road during their streak, including a 75-69 win at fourth-seeded Bryant in the NEC quarterfinals and a 69-60 win at top-seeded Robert Morris in the semifinals.
They seemed ready to continue their run when they got off to a good start Tuesday night fueled by Norfleet.
Not far from Madison Square Garden, where Willis Reed made the most celebrated comeback from injury in basketball history to help the New York Knicks win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Norfleet was in the starting lineup 72 hours after rolling his right ankle and writhing in pain during the second half of the NEC semifinal.
Norfleet was on crutches following the game. But after treatment he was able to practice on a limited basis Monday. Reed famously scored the first two baskets of the game to lead the Knicks over the Los Angeles Lakers 43 years ago. Norfleet did him one better, knocking down the first three field goals Tuesday.
He swished a 3-pointer from the left wing, nailed a jumper on the right wing and scored on a drive to help the Mount get out to an early lead. When Prescott drilled three 3-pointers in less than six minutes, the Mountaineers were ahead 20-12 with 12:45 remaining in the first half. Some sloppy play allowed LIU to go on an 11-2 spurt to grab a lead, but 3-pointers by all-tournament team selection Whack and Prescott put MSM ahead 28-25 with 9:19 remaining.
From there, however, the Mountaineers made just one of their next 17 shots.
The Mountaineers' last lead was at 31-29 before the third-seeded Blackbirds ended the half on a 6-0 spurt to take a 35-31 halftime advantage. The run reached 13-0 early in the second half, forcing Christian into a timeout that didn't change momentum.
Kristijan Krajina (12 points) halted the scoreless skid with a post move, but the Blackbirds merely went on another quick 7-2 run to make it 49-35 with 14:17 to play. And the Blackbirds just kept rolling, scoring on 16 of their first 20 offensive possessions, eventually leading by as many as 24.
"They were not going to let anything else happen besides win this third one," said LIU coach Jack Perri, who has six seniors who've now won nine consecutive NEC tournament games.
Christian said LIU's experience made a difference. Only one member of his team had played in more than one postseason game before last week. Thus, said Christian, when he called timeout to settle his team in the second half it didn't work but when Perri called a first-half timeout it did because "they had been here before."
Despite the loss, the Mountaineers did engineer quite a turnaround under their first-year coach, both from the team that went 8-21 a year ago and the team that began NEC play at 2-6 this year.
"No one outside of our locker room thought we'd be in this game. No one thought we had the capability of winning nine games in a row," Christian said. "We're definitely establishing a culture of how we do things, and that's exciting."