What the frontcourt started for the Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team Wednesday afternoon, the backcourt finished.
The Mountaineers seized on seven-point outings by forwards Malik Jefferson and Nana Opuku to claim a six-point lead at halftime and then relied on 11-point efforts from guards Jalen Gibbs and Damian Chong Qui in the second half to pull away from host Morgan State for a 62-55 victory in the season opener for both sides at Hill Field House in Northeast Baltimore.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can go get a bucket,” Jefferson said. “They’re really dependable and on the smart side. So when the whole team can score, we’re definitely more dangerous.”
Gibbs, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound senior, paced Mount St. Mary’s with 18 points, five rebounds and three assists. Chong Qui, a 5-8, 155-pound junior who hails from Baltimore and graduated from McDonogh, chipped in 13 points, six rebounds and three assists, and Jefferson, a 6-9, 230-pound junior, added 13 points and seven rebounds to propel the Mountaineers for their first win against the Bears since Feb. 7, 1984.
Jefferson and Opuku, a 6-9, 210-pound redshirt junior, anchored the offense in the first half. Jefferson put down three dunks, and Opuku converted a couple layups and even a three-pointer that he banked off the backboard.
Gibbs said the team has prioritized developing production from a number of sources.
“It’s so good because as you can see with the scoring, it’s all balanced,” he said. “So when both the guys down low and the guards are scoring, that makes us hard for the other team to guard.”
Jefferson credited the guards with recognizing that he and Opuku were making strides in the paint.
“Those guys are always going to look for us,” Jefferson said. “So we know that we can depend on them to make the right reads whether that’s shooting the ball or passing it. We know they’re going to find us. So I think we got into a really good groove.”
Neither team appeared to gain any significant advantage early in the game until more than seven minutes had elapsed. That’s when Morgan State embarked on a 6-0 run — fueled by four points from senior forward Troy Baxter — to take a 14-7 lead with 10:57 left in the first half.
A jumper in the paint by Chong Qui ended a scoring drought of 5:09 for Mount St. Mary’s. It also sparked a 7-0 spurt that tied the game at 14 with 8:13 remaining before Baxter drained a deep three-pointer to give the Bears a 17-14 lead with 7:55 left in the half.
But the Mountaineers outscored Morgan State, 14-5, over the remainder of the half. Gibbs scored five points, and Jefferson added four to send Mount St. Mary’s into the locker room with a 28-22 advantage.
In the second frame, Gibbs and Chong Qui took over. The duo scored nine of the Mountaineers’ 11 points during one stretch and then combined to score 11 of the team’s last 13 points to cement the win.
“When it gets down to crunchtime, we want to have the ball in either mine or Damian’s hands,” Gibbs said. “We just want to make plays. So we just tried to make plays in the second half to close out the game.”
Jefferson said the Bears defense aided the shift in focus to the backcourt.
“In the second half, they were flooding the paint a lot whenever we got it,” he said. “So we could look for the easy kickouts and get a lot of momentum.”
Malik Miller, a 6-4, 191-pound junior shooting guard, led all scorers with 19 points and eight rebounds, and Troy Baxter, a 6-9, 200-pound senior forward, contributed 17 points and five rebounds for Morgan State (0-1). But Baxter, who scored 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting in the first half, was limited to six points on 2-of-4 shooting in the second.
Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad said Opuku and the rest of the defense did a better job of preventing Baxter from slashing to the basket on drives and backdoor cuts.
“It was just honing in on him,” Engelstad said. “I thought Nana did a better job of really settling in the second half and keeping him in front. He’s so explosive. We talked about how he’s one of the most explosive players we will see all season. … We said, ‘We’ve got to eliminate the easy ones,’ and I thought once we did that, that hurt their offense and stalled them out a little bit.”
Both teams made 21 shots from the floor with the Mountaineers converting four 3-pointers to the Bears’ three. But Mount St. Mary’s went to the free-throw line 23 times, making 16, while Morgan State was 10-of-13 from the line, and the Mountaineers won the battle of the boards, 38-32, including 11-6 on offensive rebounds.
Bears coach Kevin Broadus spent more than 45 minutes after the game in the locker room with his players.
“We had to air some things out among ourselves,” he said. “We had to get some things cleared because we have to know our purpose. Yeah, it’s about wins and losses, but what can we do to help each other? We had to get some things across to each other that needed to be said, that’s all.”