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After ‘emotional month,’ Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball returns to comforts of home in 77-57 victory over Merrimack

EMMITSBURG — Home never felt as good for the Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team as it did Thursday night.

Playing a game at Knott Arena for the first time in 37 days, the Mountaineers rediscovered their groove on both ends of the court and easily skipped past Northeast Conference foe Merrimack, 77-57.

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Junior point guard Damian Chong Qui led all scorers with 19 points and added four assists and four rebounds, and redshirt junior forward Nana Opoku chipped in 11 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three assists to help Mount St. Mary’s (3-5, 2-2) end a two-game losing streak.

A lot has changed for the Mountaineers since Dec. 8 when they defeated league rival Saint Francis, 75-57, at home. In late December, senior shooting guard Jalen Gibbs opted out the remainder of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, freshman forward Quinton Mincey left the team for personal reasons.

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Over that same span, the program was forced to temporarily suspend the season on two occasions after a few players tested positive for COVID-19. Four games scheduled during that stretch were either canceled (UMBC and Howard) or postponed (Wagner twice).

So after back-to-back setbacks to St. Francis Brooklyn last week, returning to Knott Arena was a welcomed sight.

“It’s been an emotional month,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad said. “There’s been a lot that has transpired since the last time we played in this building, and I think tonight speaks volumes of our team and the character of our team. We had a very interesting return to campus after winter break after being shut down twice where we kept the group separated. In hindsight, probably should have just put them all together. So we had very little practice time going up to New York. We had a full week of practice, but we had to get some things off our chests, and I’m just proud of the guys because they played free, they played for each other. The ball was moving tonight. From here on out for Mount St. Mary’s basketball, we want to push tempo and we want to play fast, and I thought that was big for us. We played with great pace tonight.”

Asked what made the month emotional, Engelstad replied, “Stopping and going, guys having to be quarantined, loss of teammates. It’s hard. It’s hard for everybody, but these guys are isolated on campus. They don’t have an outlet, they don’t have a release. This is such a big part of their life, and if we’re not able to perform or if we’re not able to perform well, everything gets exacerbated. We’ve gone through some adversity this last month. I’m just really proud they’re a resilient group that stuck with it. I do believe this team has a lot of great basketball ahead of itself.”

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Chong Qui, a Baltimore resident and McDonogh graduate, balanced his production, scoring 10 points in the first half and nine in the second. He acknowledged the loss of Gibbs, who was averaging 16.5 points and shooting 42.3% from 3-point range at the time of his departure.

“I wish the best for Jalen, but we’re bought in with the guys we’ve got here,” he said. “We’ve become a lot closer, and we’ve become that much tighter. We’re looking forward to a big year for the guys that are here.” One of those guys could be Opoku, who exploded in the second half after a quiet first 20 minutes in which he posted only two points, two rebounds and zero blocks. He was one rebound shy of what would have been his fifth career double double and first since an 11-point, 10-rebound effort in that victory over Saint Francis.

“My teammates challenged me to be better in the second half, to be more aggressive, to lock in and help us win by doing whatever it takes,” Opoku said. “That little spark definitely helped me to play a better second half.”

The Mountaineers also got some much-needed production from a pair of freshmen in shooting guards Josh Reaves and Dakota Leffew. Reaves, who made his third consecutive start in place of Gibbs, had 13 points and four rebounds, while Leffew finished with 12 points and three rebounds off the bench.

“It was good to see Josh and Dakota make a couple,” Engelstad said. “We know they’re talented, but they haven’t really played a whole lot of Division I basketball yet. So for them to get some success, I think, will be good for our team.”

Junior point guard Mikey Watkins paced the Warriors (1-2, 1-2) with 19 points, including 11 in the first half, and four steals. Sophomore forward Jordan Minor contributed 14 points and nine rebounds, but Chong Qui acknowledged the challenge Watkins posed.

“He definitely got me on my P’s and Q’s with every possession,” he said. “He played a great game. I’ve got to be better defensively. I could’ve done a lot more. I got a little lazy on a couple possessions.”

Mount St. Mary’s will finish its back-to-back series with Merrimack on Friday before playing six games against three conference foes in 11 days. As daunting as that may sound, getting back on track with Thursday night’s win is a significant lift, according to Opoku.

“A lot of adversity hit us,” he said. “The only thing that we could have done in those moments was come together and become closer, push through it, and persevere.”

MERRIMACK@MOUNT ST. MARY’S

Friday, 4 p.m.

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