It's also the first time the Mountaineers have won the Northeast Conference since legendary coach Jim Phelan, famous for his signature bowtie, retired after leading the program for 49 years.
In the end, it came down to free throws. Mount St. Mary's was clutch from the line, making its last eight from the charity stripe to close out the emotional victory. Bench players Jean Cajou and Kelly Beidler led the Mount, each scoring key second half baskets to close out the Pioneers.
Each time Sacred Heart threw a haymaker, Mount seemed to have an answer. The Pioneers grabbed their first lead in more than 20 minutes on a three-point play by Drew Shubik, but Cajou stepped up and nailed a pair of 3-pointers to push Mount St. Mary's lead back to seven.
Mount St. Mary's opened the game with a 13-4 run and held the Pioneers scoreless for more than six minutes during one stretch. Sacred Heart took a 4-2 lead 2:36 into the game, then proceeded to miss its next 13 shots from the floor over the next 10 minutes. Mountaineers forward Shawn Atupem took advantage, and, on the strength of some silky post moves, led all first half scorers with 10 points.
But then it was the Mount's turn to go cold. Poor shooting and ball-handling, plus the rabid home crowd, allowed Sacred Heart to climb back into the game. The tiny Pitt Center, not much bigger than most high school gymnasiums, was stuffed with raucous students, nearly all of them wearing white T-shirts and waving white towels, eager to catch the eye of ESPN's cameras.
The noise was enough to sting the eardrums. Every block, every steal, every layup by the Pioneers brought an eruption from the students. When Sacred Heart guard Ryan Litke buried a three-pointer to pull his team within a point at 20-19 late in the first half, he pumped his fist and screamed a series of expletives in the direction of the student section, most of which were drowned out by the din.
The arena got even louder the closing seconds of the first half, when Pioneer forward Ryon Howard cut Mount St. Mary's lead to 28-23 with an offensive rebound and put-back as the buzzer sounded.
There was no shortage of emotion, however, for Mount St. Mary's, a school that bills itself, like the fictional Boston bar "Cheers," as a place where "everyone knows your name." The Mountaineers were playing for more than a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Dustin Bauer, a 22-year-old senior from Lutherville and criminology major at the university, was gravely injured in a fall early Sunday morning at his residence hall in Emmitsburg. Bauer has been on life support at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore since the accident, and according to an Associated Press report, he is being kept alive pending final farewells from family members who are having his organs harvested for transplant.
Mount St. Mary's students who made the trip to Connecticut held up signs urging the Mountaineers to "Win it for Dustin" and others with the message "D.B. Never Forgotten."