Bloomington, Ind. — As the final buzzer rang at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Mount St. Mary’s junior guard Damian Chong Qui pounded his head in frustration while he walked off the court, his season coming to an abrupt end.
The Mountaineers’ play-in game in the NCAA tournament would ultimately come down to styles: Mount St. Mary’s slow, methodical offense against Texas Southern’s fast-paced attack, the quickest in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
The first half belonged to the Mountaineers, but the Tigers made them play by a different set of rules in the second.
Texas Southern erased a 10-point halftime in a 60-52 victory on Thursday night in the opening game of the First Four. It was the first NCAA tournament game since the national final between Texas Tech and Virginia on April 8, 2019 — a span of 710 days — after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last season’s event.
“This season was different,” Mountaineers third-year coach Dan Engelstad said. “I learned a lot about the character of our team this year. That’s what I learned. I learned that we have some of the toughest young men that I’ve ever been around, and the resilience that they showed the entire season with the stops and all the adversity that they faced and never quit, kept showing up to work, and they’re champions. It wasn’t the result we wanted tonight, but they deserve and earned the right to be called a champion for the rest of their life because they worked through a tough season, and I couldn’t be more proud to be their coach.”
Mount St. Mary’s (12-11) led 30-20 at halftime after Chong Qui sank a last-second floater, its largest lead of the game. But Texas Southern (17-8) outscored the Mountaineers 40-22 in the second half, playing more like the team that averaged a SWAC-best 74.8 points per game. Mount St. Mary’s shot 32% in the second half and made just two of 12 attempts from beyond the arc.
“I thought we were flying around. Our defense was terrific in the first half,” Engelstad said. “I thought our offense was moving. They pressed us. I thought they got us out of rhythm, had a couple good looks that we didn’t make, and then our offense got stagnant.”
The Mountaineers were led by Chong Qui (McDonough), who recorded a team-high 14 points but shot just 4-for-14 from the field. Junior forward Mezie Offurum recorded a double double with 10 points and 16 rebounds, tied for the third-most boards in the Opening Round/First Four games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“They trapped [Chong Qui], and that was a good adjustment on their part,” Engelstad said. “We got the ball to the short a few times and were able to generate some decent shots out of it, but they were really aggressive trying to get the ball out of Dame’s hands and that was a good adjustment that they made at the half.”
Mount St. Mary’s finished the first half making four of its last five shot attempts, while Texas Southern missed its last four shots and was scoreless over the final 2:39. The Mountaineers held the Tigers to 27% shooting in the half, including 2-for-7 from 3-point range.
Texas Southern opened the second half with an 11-0 run, using a full-court press to disrupt the Mountaineers’ pace as it took its first lead since the 17:00 mark of the first half. Chong Qui said the Tigers’ attacking style on defense reminded him of conference foe Wagner, who the Mountaineers upset to win the Northeast Conference title for the first time since 2017.
“We talked about that they thought they could come out and press us, so we knew they’d run a diamond press,” Engelstad said. “They had run that 1-3-1, so we had seen that and we talked to our guys to be ready for it. They were really aggressive getting the ball out of Dame’s hands. We knew they would make an adjustment; I didn’t know that they would trap us to that extreme. Like I said, we generated some decent shots, got the ball to the high post and didn’t make good decisions out of there, and they got us sped up a little bit. ...
“I thought we were in a good space. I just think we gave up a couple and-ones early, which gave them some rhythm. But we’ll definitely learn from this experience and hopefully come back next season and make sure that we’re more disciplined coming out in the second half.”
The Mountaineers missed their first five shot attempts of the second half and didn’t score their first points until the 14:44 mark, when a pair of free throws by junior guard Deandre Thomas (nine points) put them back on top, 32-31. The free throws were the start of an 8-0 run that gave Mount St. Mary’s a 38-31 lead.
The Tigers responded with their own 8-0 run, with a 3-pointer by forward John Walker III giving the Tigers a 39-38 lead with 10:23 remaining. Texas Southern went up by five, 50-45, with 4:50 left after guard Michael Weathers (eight points) made a driving layup over Chong Qui, prompting Engelstad to call a timeout.
Chong Qui, an All-District team selection, began to rally the Mountaineers late, scoring their final five points to cut the deficit to two, 50-48, with under four minutes remaining. But Mount St. Mary’s went the final 3:11 without a made field goal and missed its last four shot attempts. Missed free throws also hurt the Mountaineers late, as they hit just eight of their 16 attempts, which all came in the second half.
Walker scored 19 points to lead Texas Southern, which will face top-seeded Michigan in the Round of 64 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette on Saturday.
The game marked the opening of the “First Four” on Thursday night to begin the NCAA tournament, which is being held in Indianapolis and surrounding cities to limit travel amid the pandemic. Attendance at Assembly Hall was limited to 500 family members and friends. Members of both teams were spread out across their respective bench areas and bleachers.
After a season played in empty arenas and forced into several stoppages because of coronavirus cases, Engelstad and Chong Qui expressed gratitude for completing the season and making it to Indiana. But the defeat was still fresh, and they vowed to be better from the experience.
“I have a great core that’s coming back hopefully,” Engelstad said. “If we can keep this core intact, we have a great run here set up, and now they’ve been in this stage and seen it, and hopefully next year there will be fans here and have a packed environment to play in. You know, it was great to get to this point, to be conference champion, but the message was, too, ‘We’ve now seen what this is and we want more next year.’”
Said Chong Qui: “We’ll be back here. And we’ll be better. We’ll be a lot better and we’ll take care of business.”