EMMITSBURG -- The Mount St. Mary's basketball team was practicing in virtual silence this week, alone in its quiet gymnasium, when Milan Brown, the team's trim, neatly dressed, fifth-year coach, halted the action with a sharp bleat of his black whistle.
Brown, a former point guard who looks younger than his 37 years, almost always has his whistle clenched between his teeth, ready to stop practice at a moment's notice. Sometimes, he doesn't even bother to remove it before he speaks, barking out instructions, encouragement or discipline like a man whose jaw has been wired shut.
But on this day, he calmly took the whistle out of his mouth and locked eyes with his players. "You all better get your mind right," Brown said in soft but stern tones. "Get your mind right -- right now. Because you won't be able to do it later."
Brown, a basketball lifer, was trying to impart the kind of wisdom that comes only with experience. He knew this might be the last chance for his team to truly focus without distractions, because, ready or not, Mount St. Mary's might be on the verge of something big.
Despite having one of the smallest enrollments of any Division I school in the country (1,500 undergraduates), Mount St. Mary's (17-14) faces Sacred Heart (18-13) in the Northeast Conference tournament championship game tonight in Fairfield, Conn., for a berth in the NCAA tournament. The bid would be the third in school history, the first since 1999.
It would also be a formative step in the program's rebirth, a boost to its regional and national profile. Founded in 1808, Mount St. Mary's -- located about an hour northwest of Baltimore -- is the oldest independent Catholic university in the country and prides itself on a family atmosphere. In the campus bookstore, T-shirts for sale bill the institution as the one place where "everyone knows your name."
Jim Phelan -- the bow-tie-wearing coach who guided the program to 830 wins before handing the reins to Brown in 2003 -- set an NCAA record for most seasons coached at one place when he hung up his own whistle and retired after 49 years.
It is a school that normally leads a fairly quiet existence, one that often mirrors the peaceful, vast farmland that surrounds it.
"I told Coach Phelan when he retired that, whatever I do, I would make sure he wasn't ashamed of us for one second," said Brown, who was an assistant under Phelan for four seasons, including in 1999, when the team played Michigan State in the NCAA tournament's first round. "We tell our players, 'We're trying to re-create history here, not create it.' We've been there before. We know what has to be done."
The journey to get the program back to the conference title game has, at times, been as winding as Route 140, the scenic road that weaves its way through farm country and past rusty grain silos to bring outsiders to this town of 2,300 people.
Before this season, Brown was just 41-76 at Mount St. Mary's, although, upon closer inspection, that record tells only part of the story. After two up-and-down seasons, the Mount went 11-7 in conference play in 2005-06, the best league record the school had posted in 10 years.
"I think the main difference now is everybody is hungry," said Chris Vann, the Mount's leading scorer and only senior starter. "We always wanted to win, but not everyone was willing to put in the extra work to do it."
This season has had its peaks and valleys as well, although a schedule that included brutal road games against Oregon and Oklahoma has paid off. Brown said acknowledging that he needed to let his players push the ball in transition more also has contributed to the team's late-season surge, helping the Mountaineers go 7-1 in the past eight games.
As someone who prided himself on playing great defense when he was a player at Howard, Brown has built his teams in that mold. They were consistently one of the best defensive teams in the league in points allowed. Problem was, the Mount simply wasn't scoring enough with that approach this season.
"We needed to play a more up-tempo style, and I needed to give up some control," Brown said. "That's one of the things about coaching: Every year, you continue to learn. We have enough firepower to push the basketball and still defend the way I want to."
Jeremy Goode, the Mount's sophomore point guard, represents some of that firepower. The speedy guard has blown by opponents recently, averaging 19.0 points in the conference tournament.
"It was our goal at the beginning of the season to cut down the nets, and that's still our goal," Goode said.
Goode, who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., said it was quite the culture shock when he showed up on campus two years ago, having never lived anywhere but an urban environment. But now, he said, he feels at home, and when he's not playing basketball or in class, he and his teammates spend their days watching videos on BET and sitcoms and playing video games like Guitar Hero.
"I stink at it, though," Goode said. "I'm the worst."
"I'm a Guitar Hero legend," Vann piped up, listening in on Goode's conversation. "[Teammate] Will Holland and I have already mastered the easy and the medium levels. Right now, we're still working on the hardest level."
One could say the same thing about Mount St. Mary's basketball season.
AT A GLANCE
Founded -- 1808
Location -- Emmitsburg
Enrollment -- 1,500 undergraduates
Tuition and fees -- $27,560
Famous alumni -- Edward Flanagan, founder of Boys Town; former congressman Matthew McHugh, Democrat of New York; Njuguna Mahugu, representative of Kenya to the United Nations; Susan O'Malley, former president of the NBA's Washington Wizards.
Academic ranking -- 30th among regional universities, Masters Division, according to U.S. News and World Report
School colors -- Blue and gold
Nickname -- The Mount
Last trip to NCAA tournament -- 1999
NEC TITLE GAME
Mount St. Mary's (17-14) vs. Sacred Heart (18-13)
WHAT -- Northeastern Conference tournament championship game
WHERE -- Pitt Center, Fairfield, Conn.
WHEN -- Tonight, 7
TV -- ESPN2
WHAT TO WATCH -- Winner gets the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. ... Sacred Heart defeated Mount St. Mary's, 67-59, in the only matchup between the two teams this season, but that loss re sulted in Milan Brown's decision to push the ball more with Mount St. Mary's quick guards, Jeremy Goode and Chris Vann. Goode scored 23 points in the Mount's semifinal win over Robert Morris. ... Pioneers for ward Brice Brooks scored 19 points the last time the teams met and leads a balanced scoring attack, aver aging 12.6 points. ... In the past eight games, Mount has shot 50.8 percent from the field. ... The past three games, Mount St. Mary's bench has scored 41 points a game.
KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG