A taste of big time whets appetite at Mount St. Mary's Phelan, team take aim at return trip to NCAAs


EMMITSBURG -- The first taste was sweet. Now Mount St. Mary's wants more.

In their sixth season as an NCAA Division I school, the Mountaineers announced their arrival last winter by winning the Northeast Conference with an upset victory at Rider and making the national tournament.

Forget the 113-67 first-round drubbing they absorbed from Kentucky at the Pyramid in Memphis. That the Mounts were there was achievement enough, finally giving venerable coach Jim Phelan his day on America's stage.

So what does Mount St. Mary's do for an encore?

"Go back and try it again," said Phelan. "These things have a history of running in cycles."

"What we did meant a lot to the Mount community," said point guard Riley Inge. "It signified that we had gotten to where the team expects to be from now on."

Actually, the team was just a tad ahead of its coach's timetable. Phelan anticipated this season -- when Inge and shooting guard Chris McGuthrie became seniors -- would be the breakthrough year.

"That we got there last year was a surprise," said Phelan. "It happened a year ahead of time."

Inge recalled the stunning outcome at Rider, where the Mounts scored 16 first-half points and looked horrible before rallying to win, 69-62.

"I think early on that day people on our team were happy with just being on ESPN. Whether we made the [national] tournament or not really didn't matter.

"But as the game wore on, we realized we were only 13 down and Rider starting losing composure. Silas [Cheung, another important returnee] started hitting big threes and Rider packed it in. You could just see we were going to do it."

The nation's oldest independent Catholic college, with an enrollment of 1,400, went on to face one of the sport's storied teams, and Phelan basked in the spotlight after nearly two generations of coaching excellence at the Division II level.

And the Mountaineers should be better for the experience this season.

"We all thought if we could get our feet wet, we'd come back

stronger this year," said Inge. "The whole thing kind of showed our players what they need to deal with against teams with big men who run and shoot like guards."

Mount St. Mary's won't have to face such opponents in the Northeast Conference, where Alan Tomidy of Marist is the only legitimate center.

It will see some of them in December, however, against what Phelan labeled "the suicide schedule" that includes big-payday games at Wake Forest, La Salle -- Phelan's alma mater -- Georgia Tech, Minnesota and Tulane.

"They'll give us another idea of where we have to go," said Inge. "We're hoping some of these schools go to sleep on us."

A veteran Monmouth team and perennial power Rider have been picked by coaches as the NEC co-favorites. But the Mount and Marist are legitimate contenders and Phelan believes St. Francis (Pa.) is a sleeper.

With what Inge calls "the best set of guards in the conference" and a schedule top-heavy with league games at home in February, Mount St. Mary's has some things going for it.

"In a guard-oriented league, we're in pretty good shape with three solid guys [Inge, McGuthrie and Cheung]," said Phelan. "The major problem we could have is rebounding."

The loss of burly center Randy Edney, who flunked out of school, was unexpected and damaging, since Michael Watson and Matt Meakin also departed.

Holdovers Gerben Van Dorpe and John Kelly, who played sparingly, freshman Todd Kessler and transfer Khalid Shakur will have to help Mike Brown considerably on the boards.

"If Shakur and Jeff Balistrere can play a little bit bigger than their height and we get Larry Townes the second semester, we should be all right," said Phelan.

Shakur averaged 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in 13 games at Niagara two years ago and will bring "vitality" to the team, according to the coach.

Second on the NCAA active coaching list to Dean Smith in wins with 737, Phelan will pass Phog Allen and take over sixth on the all-time list this year, his 42nd season at the Mount. Only Clarence (Big House) Gaines has a higher all-time winning percentage.

At 66, he is unassuming about his success, but still driven by the desire to win. That's why making the NCAA tournament was so important to him and the program.

"Making the NCAAs gave the whole program a shot in the arm," he said. It gave us more recognition in recruiting and got the area more involved. Now, the goal is to get back."

College previews

The schedule of college basketball previews in The Sun:

Tomorrow: UMBC

Monday: Towson State

Tuesday: Coppin State

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