EMMITTSBURG — The Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team set season highs in points and field-goal percentage in Tuesday night’s Northeast Conference opener. But all the players and coach Dan Engelstad could do was focus on their defense.
The Mountaineers limited visiting Saint Francis to just 37.7% shooting from the floor while converting 50% of their shots to sprint to a convincing 75-57 victory at Knott Arena.
Mount St. Mary’s, which improved to 2-3 overall and claimed its first win in a league opener since Dec. 29, 2016, when that squad defeated LIU, 67-65, boasted three starters in double figures. But junior point guard Damian Chong Qui paid more attention to his teammates’ defensive performance.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that got points up, but we rebounded and we defended well,” said the Baltimore resident and McDonogh graduate, who finished with 17 points, eight assists and four rebounds. “I think that was the biggest thing for us. We defended well. We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we’re capable of, but I think for the most part, we played very well defensively and with a lot of intensity.”
Senior forward Mark Flagg was the only player to hit double digits in points with 13 for the Red Flash (1-4, 0-1), who played without senior guard Ramir Dixon-Conover, their leading scorer at 13.5 points per game. But Engelstad was encouraged by the Mountaineers’ defensive effort, which limited Saint Francis to one field goal over a 5:31 stretch in the first half and then another lone basket over a 6:35 span in the second.
“We really want to be the elite defensive team in the NEC,” he said. “That’s what we want to be, one of the best defensive teams in the country. That’s what we’re aspiring to be. So it was good to see us take out a very good offensive team. They are missing a key piece for them, and when he gets back, they’re going to be better for these games without him. The younger guys are stepping up, and they have some really nice young talent.”
Mount St. Mary’s led by as much as 15 points early in the second half, but the Red Flash chipped away at the deficit until seven unanswered points closed the gap to 47-41 with 13:05 remaining. After a timeout called by Engelstad, junior small forward Mezie Offurum nailed a tough jumper along the baseline, igniting an 18-2 run. The Mountaineers also employed a full-court press that caused a few turnovers and easy points.
“We tried to speed them up a little bit,” Chong Qui said. “We knew we were up in the game, and it was something new to throw at them. We’ve been working on the press a lot this year. We want to play faster, and it paid off.”
Saint Francis might have been more successful offensively if not for Mountaineers redshirt junior forward Nana Opuku, who had nearly as many blocks (five) as points (six). Engelstad said the 6-foot-9 Opuku, 6-9 junior forward Malik Jefferson and 6-8 Offurum have solidified the team’s defense around the basket.
“Guys are going to struggle shooting over the top,” he said. “So we just have to be really solid. … With that depth, it allows Nana to play a little bit more free, and it allows him to go get a couple more blocks because he knows he’s got some help behind him.”
The Mountaineers were powered offensively by Offurum, who established career bests in points (19) and rebounds (eight). His previous high this season was seven points against Navy on Nov. 28, and Engelstad said Offurum had struggled with his shooting touch in the first four games.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Engelstad said. “He really wants to do things right. He’s one of those guys that just analyzes everything. I had a conversation with him last night, and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve seen what you’ve done in practice, and we know it’s going to eventually come out. So play with a smile on your face tomorrow and have fun on defense. The offensive stuff will come.’ So it was good to see him get off the schneid a little bit.”
The team also welcomed back senior shooting guard Jalen Gibbs, who had sat out a 60-42 loss at VCU because of a bruised left thigh. Gibbs, who entered the game as Mount St. Mary’s leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, contributed 13 points and eight rebounds.
“He’s dynamic,” Offurum said. “We all know he’s fast and very quick, and he’ll hit shots. He’s overall an aggressive scorer. So it was great to have him back.”
The Mountaineers began slowly, scoring the game’s first basket on two free throws from Offurum before watching Saint Francis score the next six points. After missing its first six shots, Mount St. Mary’s converted four of its next five to power a 9-4 run and assume an 11-10 lead with 12:02 remaining.
That’s when Chong Qui took over. He had a hand in the Mountaineers’ next 14 points, scoring 10 and assisting on redshirt junior forward Nana Opuku’s dunk. Chong Qui’s three-pointer at the 5:49 capped a 14-7 spurt and gave Mount St. Mary’s a 25-17 advantage.
Offurum then scored seven of the Mountaineers’ next 10 points to give his team its biggest lead of the half at 35-20 with 3:31 left. The Red Flash finished the half with a 6-1 run, but Mount St. Mary’s still took a 36-26 advantage into intermission.
UMBC@MOUNT ST. MARY’S
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