EMMITSBURG -- Two weeks ago, Mount St. Mary's was licking its wounds after losing its sixth straight game, a one-point defeat on a buzzer-beating shot no less.
Those struggles are a distant memory now. A rejuvenated Mount St. Mary's team took the floor against Rider at Knott Arena last night, and the Mountaineers looked like Northeast Conference title contenders.
Led by Chris McGuthrie's 30 points and a defense that held Rider to 38.6 percent shooting, the Mountaineers took control of the Broncs early, withstood a second-half rally, then pulled away to a 79-65 victory before 3,021, the largest crowd at Mount St. Mary's this season.
The Mountaineers (8-8, 5-4) have won five of their past six games. Their record, which places them in the middle of the NEC, hides the fact that they've stood up to every test the league has thrown at them. Three of the Mountaineers' conference losses have been by a combined four points.
Rider, for example, came into last night's game in second place as the hottest shooting and best defensive team in the conference. But the Broncs (10-7, 6-3) provided light resistance for the Mountaineers, who led for the game's final 36 minutes.
"We should be undefeated [in the conference] right now. We let four wins slip away. But I think those close losses were good for us," said McGuthrie, the sophomore shooting guard who was bad news all night for the Broncs.
McGuthrie, the Mountaineers' leading scorer who has been in a mild slump lately, broke out of it by making nine of 17 shots, including five of seven from three-point range. He also made all seven of his free throws to score at least 30 points for the second time this season. He scored 20 points after halftime.
Sophomore point guard Riley Inge added 10 points and four assists. Junior forward Michael Watson came off the bench to score 15 points, grab five rebounds and block four shots.
"Our record is very deceptive. Two, one-point losses could easily have been in the win column. I think we can win the conference," said Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan.
"We had to step up our defensive intensity. That's what has really helped us, along with the rotation of our big guys," Phelan added.
While the Mountaineers were struggling, their biggest shortcoming was on the boards. That has not been the case lately, particularly last night. Mount St. Mary's out-rebounded Rider, 42-31. Forwards Jeff Balistrere and Larry Townes each had a game-high eight rebounds.
The defense also took care of business away from the basket. The Mountaineers' man-to-man, fighting through screens and switching smoothly for most of the night, forced 17 turnovers. It also held the Broncs to 7-for-30 shooting in the first half, when Mount St. Mary's rebounded from a slow start to take a 37-23 lead at halftime.
The Broncs' shooters finally awakened in the second half, as Rider hit seven of their first nine shots to cut the lead to 54-45 with 11:32 left. But McGuthrie and Watson halted the Broncs' comeback.
After Watson made a follow-up, McGuthrie converted three free throws, then made a running, off-balance 12-footer to make it 61-46 with 6:25 left. After Charles Smith (12 points) made a pair of baskets to pull Rider to within 63-50, Watson made three foul shots. McGuthrie then hit two straight three-pointers to give the Mountaineers a 72-54 lead with three minutes left.
If the Mountaineers are going to move near the top of the NEC standings, they must start Thursday, when they begin a RTC three-game road trip at St. Francis (Pa.). Mount St. Mary's is 2-5 on the road.
For the first several minutes, the Mountaineers made just about every mistake imaginable. They turned the ball over on four of their first five possessions, and Edney missed a slam. But thanks to poor shooting by Rider, Mount St. Mary's took an 11-7 lead with 14:30 left in the half.
After Rider tied the game at 11, Watson entered and immediately hit a 12-foot jumper to spark an 8-0 run that gave the Mountaineers a 19-11 lead with 9:48 to go. McGuthrie made a three-pointer, then Inge converted a follow-up to make it 24-13 with 7:35 left.
Smith made two free throws to pull the Broncs to within 30-20, but the Mountaineers finished the half with a 7-3 run, highlighted by McGuthrie's three-pointer, to give them a 37-23 halftime lead.
Rider made only seven of 30 shots (23.3 percent) in the first half.