NEW YORK -- Mount St. Mary's was a team in disarray going into the Northeast Conference tournament, having dropped its final three regular-season games. But this time of year it's not how you enter, it's how you leave -- and the Mountaineers are leaving in high style.
The Mount walked away with an NCAA tournament bid -- the second in school history -- with last night's 72-56 win over fourth-seeded Central Connecticut State at the Spiro Sports Center on the Wagner University campus.
And in doing so the sixth-seeded Mount helped coach Jim Phelan reach his 800th career win -- becoming only the fourth coach in college basketball history to earn that lofty milestone.
"This being 800, certainly does make it bigger than '95," Phelan said of the last time the Mount reached the NCAAs. " '95 was a great team. But the combination of the two -- going to the NCAA tournament and winning 800 -- makes this just a little bit bigger."
To advance, the Mountaineers on back-to-back days had to beat two teams that they had failed to defeat during the regular season.
The Mountaineers had dropped both games to second-seeded St. Francis, N.Y., before Sun day's 68-66 win in the NEC semifinals, and had dropped both games to Central Connecticut.
But with junior guard and tournament MVP Gregory Harris scoring 20 points and freshman center Melvin Whitaker (eight blocks) leading a defense that allowed just one field goal in the last eight minutes, the Mount completed its unlikely run.
"I wanted to be in the Dance. I grew up in ACC country," said Whitaker, who is from Raleigh, N.C. "That's all you hear -- NCAA this and NCAA that. This is all I could ask for. That was my main focus, to get to the Big Dance."
"Now I can tell my kids that I played for two Hall of Fame coaches," added Harris, who played for Morgan Wootten at DeMatha. "This justifies everything, it proves that we can pull it together."
Mount St. Mary's (15-14) led by as many as eight points early in the second half, but Central Connecticut (19-13) pulled to within 52-51 after a layup by Charron Watson (game-high 21 points) with 8: 03 left.
And the Mount appeared to be in foul trouble because Whitaker was on the bench with four fouls, and backup center Konata Springer already had fouled out.
But the Mount took control of the game basically playing with a three-guard offense. Aaron Herbert scored on a layup, and Harris followed with a 25-foot three-pointer with 6: 56 left to give the Mount a 57-51 lead.
And the Mountaineers pretty much controlled the game from that point on, getting a big defensive lift from Whitaker, who blocked four shots in the final minutes before fouling out.
In two regular-season games, only six points separated the two teams. Mount St. Mary's knew going into last night that, in order to win, the team had to contain Central Connecticut freshman center Corsley Edwards (Lake Clifton).
And that meant a solid effort from 6-foot-10 Whitaker, who started the game strong with nice post moves as he scored four of the Mount's first eight points.
Mount St. Mary's was trailing, 14-10, when the team made its first big first-half run. Guard Eric Bethel, who scored the game-winning basket in Sunday's win over St. Francis, hit two straight three-pointers to start the run, and Harris followed with another. In all the Mountaineers scored 13 straight points that, after a layup by Springer, gave the team a 23-14 lead with 8: 30 left in the half.
Central Connecticut called time, and the Mount players celebrated wildly during the break. But it was clear, when play resumed, that the Mountaineers' celebration was way premature.
The Blue Devils responded with a 14-2 run of their own, fueling a defense that forced the Mount into bad shots or turnovers. Offensively, Central Connecticut pounded the ball inside and got numerous second chance opportunities. With 4: 07 left Tomas Brookins scored on a short jumper in the lane, giving Central Connecticut a 28-25 lead.
Mount St. Mary's could only manage two field goals over the final eight minutes of the half. But a three-pointer by Terrence Wilson with 1: 11 left tied the game at 29, and he followed that with two free throws with 31 seconds left to give the Mount a 31-29 halftime lead.
After Central Connecticut tied the game at 33 early in the second half on a layup by Edwards, the Mount scored the next nine points on a three-pointer by Rob Balgac and layups by Harris, Springer and Bethel (15 points).
After Bethel's score gave the Mount a 42-34 lead with 15: 44 left, Edwards had to leave the game for the Blue Devils after turning his right ankle. Edwards, who burned UMBC for 23 points and 13 rebounds in Central Connecticut's 82-72 semifinal victory, was held to 12 points last night.
Central Connecticut reserve Bryan Finley tied the game at 47 with 11: 12 left, hitting two free throws.
The Mount would take a 52-47 lead when Harris, grabbing an offensive rebound, was fouled as he scored on a layup and converted a three-point play with 9: 12 left. However, 26 seconds later Springer, just seconds after checking into the game, picked up his fifth foul.
After the celebration, Phelan reflected on No. 800. "I've been blessed," said the coach, who turns 70 later this month. "When we're right, we can go out and play with anybody."