The Northeast Conference men’s basketball tournament will have a different look this season, with the top four teams rather than the top eight qualifying for the event.
Mount St. Mary’s started this week in possession of the No. 1 seed, but after back-to-back home losses against Wagner the Mountaineers head out on a road trip to close the regular season in need of some wins to stay near the top. The Mount (8-9, 7-6 NEC) had won six of its last eight games before losing a pair to the Seahawks and being surpassed in the standings. Wagner (8-5, 8-4) is now in the top spot — Merrimack is also 8-4 but ineligible for the NEC tournament while still transitioning to NCAA Division I.
Bryant (6-4) and Sacred Heart (7-5) hold the next two spots, and Mount St. Mary’s is in fourth. Long Island and St. Francis Brooklyn are both 7-7 and right behind the pack.
MSM visits Fairleigh Dickinson (7-13, 6-8) on Feb. 20-21 before traveling to Saint Francis (6-13, 5-10) on Feb. 25 and closing out the trip at Bryant on March 2-3.
Mount St. Mary’s defeated Saint Francis 75-57 on Dec. 8 in its conference opener, but has yet to play FDU or Bryant. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a game at home this season (6-0).
The Northeast Conference tournament is set to begin March 6 with the top two seeds hosting semifinal games. The winners meet March 9 for the NEC tourney title a championship game to be televised on ESPN2.
If the Mount wants to be one of those four conference teams playing in March, it will likely rely on its top-rated defense to lead the way. MSM ranks No. 1 in the Northeast Conference in scoring defense at 61.2 allowed points per game — that’s just outside the top 10 for all of Division I.
Mount St. Mary’s holds its opponents to 40.8% shooting, also best in the NEC. However, MSM is last in scoring offense at 61.5 points per game (Bryant leads the conference at 88.1 ppg).
“We’re one of the best defensive teams in the league, statistically one of the better teams in the country. So I think that speaks to their character,” Mount coach Dan Engelstad said after Wednesday’s 57-55 loss to Wagner. “It would be nice to see the ball go in the basket more, and nice to not turn the ball over as much.”
Mount St. Mary’s had 10 turnovers in its Tuesday defeat and followed that up with 15 on Wednesday, which led to 16 Seahawks points.
Junior guard Damian Chong Qui leads the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game, and junior forward Nana Opoku is next at 9.2. Opoku also averages 7.6 rebounds, while fellow junior big man Malik Jefferson tops the team at 7.8.
Chong Qui scored the Mount’s final 12 points Wednesday and finished with 18 as his team tried to put together a late comeback.
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“Our guys have been fighting all year. They’re resilient,” Engelstad said. “But we have to play better. If we want to be the last one standing, which is still the goal, we’ve got to do some things and make some improvements.”