Imagine Cinderella with a mean streak, and that’s how Nana Opoku envisions his Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team.
Asked if the Mountaineers, who qualified for their sixth NCAA tournament appearance by capturing the Northeast Conference title, can be that one underdog that makes a deep run in the postseason and wins the hearts of fans hungry for an outsider to tip the scales in college athletics, Opoku shared a different perspective.
“We’re here to take somebody’s head off,” the redshirt junior power forward said. “For real.”
That sentiment usually makes coaches cringe, especially at how easily it can be turned into bulletin-board material. But rather than tsk-tsk his player, Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad is all smiles.
“We came here to build something and knew that we were going to have to go through the ups and downs of it, but just to see their work pay off and to see those faces and to see them hold that trophy and to see them dancing, even them being on this call with you guys, they have a different personality to them,” he said. “They have a different confidence, a certain swagger. Nana wasn’t saying take someone’s head off before. Damian [Chong Qui, the team’s junior point guard, is] making jokes. That’s the fun part as a coach, to see their confidence build. For me, that’s the reward.”
Whether that faith will be rewarded depends largely on how the Mountaineers (12-10) fare against Texas Southern (16-8) in a First Four play-in game Thursday at 5:10 p.m. at Assembly Hall on Indiana University’s campus in Bloomington. The Tigers have won nine straight en route to claiming the Southwestern Athletic Conference title, lead the SWAC in scoring and rebounding and have been fueled by senior guard Michael Weathers, who averages 16.5 points and 5.2 rebounds.
In some ways, Mount St. Mary’s has already vanquished its toughest opposition just to reach this stage of the season. Back-to-back pauses caused by coronavirus cases cost the team three nonconference games and the postponement of a two-game series against league rival Wagner in December.
Redshirt junior shooting guard Jalen Gibbs opted out in December as the team’s leading scorer at 16.5 points. Then injuries began to flare up with freshman point guard Dakota Leffew suffering a season-ending broken wrist Jan. 22 and junior point guard Deandre Thomas missing seven games because of a separated shoulder.
“I saw it multiple times where I was like, ‘We’re about to break through,’ and then whether it was COVID or whether it was injuries, it was like, ‘Oh, damn it, we can’t quite get over this hump,’” Engelstad recalled. “But we kept fighting and kept grinding and our guys kept believing.”
After three consecutive losses to Wagner (twice) and Fairleigh Dickinson in February, the Mountaineers were in danger of missing the conference tournament. But they won their next two games, including a critical 72-65 overtime victory at Saint Francis on Feb. 25 that involved digging out of a seven-point deficit in the final minute thanks to Chong Qui scoring eight points, including a 3-pointer with eight seconds left in regulation, to tie the score at 63.
“It’s win or go home for us since Wagner,” said Chong Qui, a Baltimore resident and McDonogh graduate. “So we’ve been pretty locked in. And just from a team aspect, we really emphasized finishing plays. We lost a lot of games earlier just not being able to finish plays or close the games out. So I think we take pride in just locking in. Mentally, we’ve been locked in at another level. Our preparation was at an all-time high. We’ve been locked in for the last month of the season, and we’re still locked in.”
The No. 4 seed in the Northeast Conference tournament, Mount St. Mary’s upset top-seeded Wagner, 66-60, in the semifinals. Three days later, it knocked off No. 2 seed Bryant, 73-68, for the program’s first tournament championship since 2017.
Chong Qui said the players leaned on the experience of falling to Sacred Heart in last year’s tournament quarterfinals.
“Last year was our first time in the playoffs,” he said. “It was kind of like a, ‘Wow, we’re here.’ This year, it was kind of like, ‘We’re here, and we’re going to stay here.’ We were locked in with our energy and how we could feel it. The energy was just crazy.”
Mount St. Mary’s strength this winter has been a tenacious defense that harasses opposing shooters, especially around the 3-point arc. The unit ranks 16th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 62.3 points per game, and 25th in opponent 3-point shooting at 30.1%.
“That’s our backbone,” junior small forward Mezie Offurum said. “That’s something that’s really beneficial for us. I feel like we can surprise a lot of teams. They’re probably not going to score as well as they did in their conferences. Just tight, gritty games that can lead to some upsets.”
The bright lights of the NCAA tournament, however, can have a daunting effect on players who have never reached the postseason — such as the current crop of Mountaineers. But Engelstad insisted that his players won’t be awe-struck.
“I don’t think that will happen at all,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot. They’ve played on different stages. We’ve played Marylands, we’ve played Georgetowns, we played Kentucky last year. So we’ve played the best of the best in the country, and they’re never scared in those games. Even when we weren’t very good, we went into those games and competed at a very high level. So I’m not worried about that.”
If history is on Mount St. Mary’s side, the program is 2-0 in the Opening Round or First Four stages of the NCAA tournament. And the failures of the previous two years can be a powerful motivator.
“We’ve been through a lot,” junior power forward Malik Jefferson said. “We’ve lost a lot of games, but we also fought hard for the last three years. So I feel like all of the guys on our team deserve it. So I’m really happy for us. We’re going to fight until the horn sounds.”
Engelstad is banking on that persistence to show up against Texas Southern.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the game, but this group is not backing down from anybody,” he said. “They fight. … We’ve got a point guard as good as any player we’ll see in terms of his confidence and his ability to control the game, and we’ve got length and athleticism to match anybody. That’s exciting for us. We think it gives us a chance to go win a game and keep playing good basketball.”
NCAA First Four
NO. 16 SEED MOUNT ST. MARY’S VS. NO. 16 SEED TEXAS SOUTHERN
Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.
Thursday, 5:10 p.m.
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