LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- At halftime yesterday, the situation couldn't have looked much grimmer for Mount St. Mary's.
Rider's defense had been overwhelming, the Mountaineers had scored 16 points on 6-for-27 shooting to trail by 13 and their bench was depleted by injuries.
Moreover, the Mount was playing a team that never had lost in eight Northeast Conference tournament games, was considered the most talented in the league and had the 1,650 fans in Alumni Gymnasium in a frenzy.
L But the metamorphosis of the Mountaineers had not yet begun.
With the aid of some offensive adjustments, they poured in 53 second-half points, Rider collapsed under the pressure and Mount St. Mary's and coach Jim Phelan won their first NEC championship, 69-62.
Mount guard Riley Inge said the significance of going to the NCAA tournament hasn't struck yet.
"When the selection show comes up, that's when it'll hit me," he said.
The Mount's 7-foot, 300-pound center Randy Edney, usually stoic on the court, displayed more emotion than ever.
"I just got fired up," he said. "We had to prove we were the top team in the league, and that meant doing some stepping up."
jTC The victory was the 17th for Mount St. Mary's (17-12), the school's highest total since it joined NCAA Division I seven years ago, and thrust Phelan's team into its first national tournament since the 1987 Division II regionals.
Phelan, who never shows much emotion after victories, was a rock in the midst of the on-court celebration. He went to call his wife, Dottie, whom he said "could hardly hear me, but she was thrilled."
Rider (18-11) did not achieve its unprecedented "three-peat" and became the first host team to lose an NEC final since 1986.
"The last 20 minutes were like a nightmare," said Broncs coach Kevin Bannon. "We didn't just lose. We lost in a fashion where we fell apart. We didn't play like a champion for 40 minutes."
Only for 20. The Broncs' ferocious defense -- particularly Deon Hames against the Mount's top scorer, Chris McGuthrie -- was the focal point of a first half in which Mount St. Mary's shot 22 percent, committed 12 turnovers and was in the game only because Rider's offense (40.7 percent from the field) wasn't much better.
"We felt extremely fortunate to be down only 13," said Phelan.
Then Mount St. Mary's increased its defensive intensity, gave McGuthrie the ball to penetrate and dish off and worked a heretofore unseen play to take charge of the early minutes of the second half.
And the Broncs began to wither.
"We got a couple layups and hit a couple other buckets, and you could see the fire go out of their eyes," said Mountaineers forward Silas Cheung, who came out of nowhere to become the tourney's most valuable player.
With McGuthrie under Hames' thumb again, Cheung shot the Mount back into contention with three three-pointers and 11 total points in the first seven minutes of the second half. His three-pointer gave Mount St. Mary's its first lead at 41-40.
Meanwhile, the attack was ignited with a backdoor layup by Inge after Edney took the ball at the top of the key.
That play worked several times, and McGuthrie's penetration and passes to Cheung and Inge on the wings finally produced some open three-point attempts. McGuthrie also dribbled away a lot of time in the closing minutes after the Mount gained the lead.
"We worked a couple of things into the picture that we haven't used," said Phelan. "We got a couple of layups, compressed the defense a little and, all of a sudden, the threes were there."
Rider tied on three occasions but never regained the lead. In the final two minutes, Inge made two free throws. Then senior Michael Watson hit six straight from the line to put it away.
"Last night and early this morning, I couldn't sleep," said Watson, the league's super sub, who contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds. "All I could think about was I didn't want this to be my last game."
With forward Matt Meakin out because of a broken hand, Edney shouldered almost all of the inside burden for the Mount and continued his strong postseason play with 13 points and 15 rebounds while playing 38 minutes.
Cheung had 19 points and Inge 16 (plus seven assists), but McGuthrie finished with a career-low four points.
"I'll take it. We won," said McGuthrie.
Although fans in the visiting section flashed a sign that said, "We Want UCLA," McGuthrie apparently wasn't enthralled with that idea. "Anybody but them" was his response.
Meanwhile, Phelan, in his 41st year as coach, took the title in stride.
"This is like a semifinal game. There is nothing like playing for a national championship," said Phelan, who took the Mount to the NCAA College Division title in 1962.
"I'm happy for these kids. I'm not too old to dance, but I've been to the NIT three times when it was the big tournament, an assistant coach on a national championship team [La Salle] and a College Division champion.
I= "But it is good to be taking my own team to the big one."