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Carroll County Times
Carroll County Sports

Men's Basketball: The big stage is set for Mount St. Mary's

Mount St. Mary's is hosting the Northeast Conference tournament final Tuesday night, and it's arguably the biggest men's basketball game ever to take place inside Knott Arena.

The tiny gymnasium opened in 1987, across U.S 15 from the rest of the Emmitsburg campus. The Mount hosted Maryland on Dec. 8 in perhaps the marquee matchup that season, the only time the Terps have made the trip to Mount St. Mary's.

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Sixteen years later, coach Jim Phelan retired after the Mountaineers' final game in 2003, and a sellout crowd watched MSM beat Central Connecticut State to send its legendary coach out with 830 career wins.

That's the short list for big-time games played at Knott Arena, but the list grows Tuesday.

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The Mount, playing in a home NEC championship game for the first time, can claim its fifth conference tourney crown — and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament that comes with it. But first, the Mountaineers (18-15) have to defeat St. Francis University (16-15) for a third time this season.

"It's going to be just exactly the same game as the other games we've had here," said sophomore guard Elijah Long, MSM's leading scorer at 15.2 points per game "Obviously we're blessed about that ... thank God that that happened, but that after that just focus on the game. It's just a game."

Long scored 22 points, a game high, in the NEC semifinals Saturday against Robert Morris and helped the Mount prevailed 75-66. He had 19 points in the quarterfinal victory over Sacred Heart.

The all-NEC first-team pick had 21 and 25 in the Mount's games against St. Francis U, meaning he's the likely focal point for the Red Flash's defense. But Mount St. Mary's has been succeeding with more than just Long.

Junior Robinson, a junior guard and second-team all-conference selection, is scoring 20 points per game in the NEC tourney. When the Mountaineers needed someone to sink crucial free throws, Robinson went 8-for-8 against Robert Morris and 4-for-6 vs. Sacred Heart.

Chris Wray, a junior forward, is averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in the playoffs. He also has five blocks, and came up big with a pair of free throws down the stretch in the semifinals despite entering the game shooting 30.3 percent from the line.

All three players have been pivotal in the Mount reaching the NEC title game, and coach Jamion Christian does his best to recognize them at every turn. Even during games, with the outcome still in doubt — Christian tends to eschew calling a timeout to allow his on-court players to figure things out.

"I'm a big believer in our guards," Christian said after the NEC semifinals, sitting between Long and Robinson. "I've tried to empower the guys beside me and Chris Wray and [forward] Mawdo Sallah and those guys, 'Hey, they may go on a run, they may hit a few shots. Let's settle in here.' Because I think you really need to use these timeouts at the end of games. When I watch college basketball, guys waste timeouts often.

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"I don't want to call a timeout because I trust these guys."

St. Francis, the No. 4 seed in the tournament, advanced to the final by beating Wagner 71-70 in thrilling fashion. Keith Braxton, a freshman guard and the NEC Rookie of the Year, tossed up a one-handed 3-pointer at the buzzer with a defender in his face. Braxton's wild shot circled the rim and dropped through as time ran out.

The Red Flash had the NEC's top scoring offense during the regular season at 76 1 points per game, and feature a balanced attack. At least four St. Francis players have scored in double figures in 20 of the team's 31 games.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Blackmon leads the Red Flash with 13.6 points per game, followed by Braxton's 13.5 per game. Jamaal King, another sophomore guard, scores 12.2 per game, and sophomore swingman Josh Nebo gets 12.0 per game.

"When you get to this part of the year, the regular-season stuff doesn't even matter," Christian said. "You're going to have two teams that are locked in at such a high level. When you get near the end here, everybody's going to be pretty locked in and giving everything they have."

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If You Go

What: NEC tournament final

Who: St. Francis U (16-15) at Mount St. Mary's (18-15)

When: Tuesday at 7

Where: Knott Arena, Emmitsburg

TV: ESPN2


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