But last night, the Mountaineers barely survived the first test.
After trailing virtually the entire game, Mount St. Mary's fought off stubborn Long Island University in the NEC quarterfinals, 68-67, on Michael Watson's layup with two seconds left.
Long Island "deserved to win," said Mountaineers coach Jim Phelan. "We were fortunate to have the home-court advantage and to stay just close enough that we weren't completely out of touch."
LIU (11-17) took its final lead at 67-66 with 18 seconds to go when NEC Player of the Year Joe Griffin muscled his way to a tough basket, then completed the play with a free throw after being fouled.
On the final play following a timeout by each team, Chris McGuthrie was double-teamed and unable to take a shot, so he passed into the middle to Jeff Balistrere, who drew the rest of the Blackbirds' defense.
Balistrere found Watson wide open to the left of the basket and shuffled the ball to him for the game-winner that sends the Mount against third-seeded Marist in the semifinals at Knott Arena Friday night.
"The play wasn't even designed for me," said Watson, who joined with 7-foot Randy Edney to spark the second-half comeback. "It's just the way it worked out.
"Being a senior, I wasn't intending to go home after the game. I wanted to go on. This is the best birthday present that I could have had."
The Blackbirds came in as the hottest team in the league after beating Robert Morris in the play-in game for their third straight victory. They showed why, jumping to a 10-1 lead.
Griffin (28 points, nine rebounds) and LIU were in control of the game at the half with a 36-27 lead after the Mount St. Mary's starting guards and two top scorers, McGuthrie and Riley Inge, shot a combined 2-for-18 from the field.
It didn't get much better for Mount St. Mary's guards, who finished with an aggregate 7-for-33 night, but Watson and Edney shouldered much of the scoring load and LIU pitched in by missing three key free throws at crunch time.
"I thought we played well, taking the crowd out of the game completely. But our foul shots hurt us at the end and we just didn't finish," said Blackbirds' coach Paul Lizzo.
Phelan was happy with the team's execution on the final play and said the way the game developed "should wake us up some."
He added: "We came out sure of ourselves, then we got scared when things were going right."