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Mount St. Mary’s ready to face Bryant in Northeast Conference championship game

Mount St. Mary’s avenged a pair of regular-season losses against Wagner by defeating the Seahawks on Saturday in the Northeast Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinals.

The Mountaineers took out the top seed in Wagner, and the No. 4 seed can oust another higher ranked opponent when they visit Bryant on Tuesday night at 7 in the NEC championship game. If so, the Mount will earn a berth into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.

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Mount St. Mary’s (11-10) had its regular-season games against Bryant canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bulldogs (15-5) earned the No. 2 seed in the four-team NEC tournament and are making their first trip to the conference championship game.

They’re playing the title game at home, in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where they went 10-0 this season. Bryant blasted Sacred Heart 85-55 in the semifinals Saturday without two of its starters, because of COVID concerns, and dressed seven players in the game.

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Mount St. Mary’s beat Wagner 66-60 in come-from-behind fashion in the other semifinal. The Mountaineers lost to the Seahawks 61-39 and 57-55 on back-to-back days in mid-February, but have won three in a row heading into Tuesday’s NEC final.

MSM trailed Wagner 57-56 with 1 minute, 45 seconds remaining in Saturday’s game, but junior forward Mezie Offurum scored a layup with 32 seconds to go, then grabbed a rebound off a Seahawks missed free throw on the next possession and knocked down two from the line.

Junior forward Malik Jefferson and junior guard Damian Chong Qui added a pair of free throws down the stretch and the Mount capped its victory with a fastbreak dunk from Nana Opoku, another junior forward, as time expired.

Opoku and junior guard Chong Qui had 14 points apiece, and Jefferson notched a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Chong Qui and Offurum each handed out four assists. The Mount held Wagner to 36% shooting, and the Seahawks went 10-for-16 from the free-throw line.

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Mount St. Mary’s owns a 15-9 lead in the all-time series against Bryant. The Bulldogs and Mountaineers have met once before in the NEC tournament, the 2013 quarterfinals. Playing in its first NEC playoff game, the Bulldogs lost 75-69.

Senior guard Peter Kiss leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 17.1 points per game and was fourth in conference play at 17.7 ppg. Kiss has scored 20-plus points on 10 occasions, including seven times against NEC opponents.

Chong Qui, a first-team all-NEC pick this season, leads Mount St. Mary’s in scoring at 14.9 points per game. The McDonogh grad also averages 5.5 assists and shoots 81.2% from the free-throw line.

Opoku, the NEC’s Defensive Player of the Year, adds 9.9 points and 7.0 rebounds. Jefferson leads the team with 7.7 boards per game, and Offurum chips in with 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.

Tuesday’s Northeast Conference tournament final is set to be broadcast on ESPN2.

Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad said he preached a message to his players in the days leading up to the tournament.

“You’re built for this moment, you’re built for this type of game,” Engelstad said in Saturday’s post-game press conference. “We fight, we scrap. It’s going to be another battle. Any time you’re playing in a game that the winner ... gets to achieve their dreams, and the loser doesn’t, the stakes are that high. And our guys, I thought they played loose and free to start [against Wagner] and that’s going to be the message to them again.”

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