EMMITSBURG -- This has been a turnaround season for Mount St. Mary's basketball, highlighted by a third-place finish in the 10-team Northeast Conference, a Co-Coach of the Year award for Jim Phelan and a Newcomer of the Year honor for the team's exciting freshman guard, Chris McGuthrie.
But one thing has troubled Phelan all year: subpar success at Knott Arena.
A 6-6 home record (including 4-5 in the NEC) has tempered the rejuvenation and defied the conventional logic that a team should thrive at home and play .500 on the road to be a championship contender.
So, a sense of defending their own turf will be a major aim for the third-seeded Mountaineers tonight, when they play host to No. 6 St. Francis, N.Y., in the quarterfinals of the NEC tournament.
"You keep going around in circles if you think about the home record," said guard Kevin Booth. "But I don't think it really makes a difference where you play at tournament time. If you have a choice, you want to play at home."
Phelan is more concerned.
"I don't ever remember losing so many home games that were so important in front of such large crowds," he said. "We're happy to be hosting a game, but in light of the way things are going, I'm not so sure it's that great of an advantage.
"We're thinking about moving back to Memorial Gym across the road," Phelan added wryly. "I just hope our players suddenly realize this is our home gym."
Wagner coach Tim Capstraw, whose team beat the Mountaineers at Knott in the regular-season finale, believes opponents "get up to play here because it's such a beautiful atmosphere. It's the best place in the conference and players aren't used to that. I know our guys like playing here."
So, apparently, did St. Francis, one of the visitors that prevailed in Emmitsburg, 76-72.
The Terriers return with the momentum of eight victories in their past 12 games, an athletic team that likes to play up-tempo and three players who received postseason honors -- forward Ron Arnold (second-team NEC) and forward Danny Manning and guard Jeff Myers (all-newcomer team).
"It takes a lot of mental concentration to win down there," said St. Francis coach Ron Ganulin of Mount St. Mary's. "The student section is near your bench and they really get on you. But I think NTC our team believes they can win on the road."
To do that, St. Francis will have to contain McGuthrie and Booth, who scored 48 of the Mountaineers' 70 points against Wagner in the last game. Conversely, the Mountaineers must receive more scoring help from their inside players.
McGuthrie said that during his second time "around the league, the defenses became a lot tougher. I wasn't really used to it."
"We've gotten the attention mostly all year," said Booth. "We have to control their defense and not let their defense control us. I think we have a few little adjustments nobody has seen that will help."
Still, someone on the front line will have to step up because picks and screens for the guards can do only so much. All the frontcourt players combined had just four baskets against Wagner.
The most likely candidate is forward Michael Watson, the only NEC reserve averaging in double figures (10.0). He did not have a field goal in the finale.
"Our team seems to rise when you don't expect it and fall when you don't expect it," said Phelan. "I just hope the home-court advantage holds up this time."
In the first round, it didn't. Both visiting teams, Long Island University and Monmouth, won in Western Pennsylvania. The Mountaineers have not been alone.