Mount's surprise party spoiled

The Baltimore Sun

EMMITSBURG -- The Mount St. Mary's basketball team was nervous, excited, anxious and eager yesterday.

The day had come for the Mountaineers to find out which team they'd be facing in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and a big celebration had been planned. Fans and students had been invited to join the players and coaches as they watched the selection show unfold on live television. A second flat-screen TV had been hooked up. Pizza, soda, pretzels and cookies had been ordered.

The party went off as planned. But all the drama had been sucked out of the room. By the time everyone arrived in cozy Purcell Hall, Mount St. Mary's already knew it would be facing Coppin State in tomorrow's play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, at 7:30 p.m. The selection committee announced that decision around 3 p.m. at halftime of the Big Ten championship game, and most of the Mount St. Mary's players were caught by surprise, back in their campus apartments, when they got word.

"I liked knowing [early] from a coaching standpoint," Mount St. Mary's coach Milan Brown said. "But as a fan, I didn't like it because we already knew when we walked in here who we were playing and where we were going. This part of March, just figuring out where you're going, that's so exciting for the kids and to have that taken away from them is a little bit of a downer."

The only drama that remained was the Mountaineers' potential first-round opponent, should they win. That will be North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion and No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The winner of the play-in game will take on the Tar Heels on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.

There was some disappointment for Mount at landing in the play-in game. Mount St. Mary's Rating Percentage Index ranking -- which gauges strength of schedule -- was 159. The Mountaineers had four teams on their non-conference schedule that made the NCAA tournament field.

"I mean, we won our conference," sophomore point guard Jeremy Goode said. "I don't expect to have to win a game to get to a tournament that I feel we worked hard enough to get to."

But the disappointment, if there was any, was fleeting.

"We're overwhelmed with just being in the NCAA tournament," senior guard Chris Vann said. "It gives us a good chance to make history with the program. We haven't won an NCAA game here, and this is a game we're capable of winning."

Brown joked that it felt a little strange that two teams separated by just 45 miles would have to travel all the way to Ohio to decide which one of them got to advance. He speculated that Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell might feel the same.

"I'm tempted to call Fang and say, 'Why don't we just meet at the Verizon Center [in Washington] and save on some travel?' " Brown said.

This will be the first time Brown and Mitchell will face one another as coaches, but Brown, who was a standout point guard at Howard under coach Butch Beard, played against Mitchell's teams several times, including his final college game -- a loss to Coppin State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament in 1993.

"I wouldn't be a very good person if I kept that in my back pocket as a source of motivation," Brown said. "But as a player, you always remember the last one."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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