EMMITSBURG — Jalen Gibbs dribbled down the lane and used a spin move to avoid a defender to go up for a shot, only to have the ball leave his grasp and land out of bounds under the basket.
Gibbs committed a turnover and could only look up in disgust, with his hands on his hips. Less than three minutes remained in Wednesday’s game between Mount St. Mary’s and North Carolina A&T, with Gibbs and his Mountaineers teammates playing in front of the home fans for the first time this season.
But the play seemed to epitomize Mount St. Mary’s inability to jell.
The Mount started three freshmen (one redshirt) and two sophomores, with Gibbs being one of those second-year players. He’s also one of the team’s two transfers, part of the next phase of Mount basketball.
Dan Engelstad is new as well — the first-year coach replaced Jamion Christian, who left for Siena after a six-year run and leading Mount St. Mary’s to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. All but a handful of players followed Christian out of Emmitsburg, either leaving by choice or graduation.
Engelstad wants to get the Mount back to prominence despite having one of the nation’s younger rosters in Division I hoops. The 34-year-old coach also knows it will likely take some time.
North Carolina A&T’s experience proved vital to the Aggies’ 74-60 victory at Knott Arena, and Engelstad said the Mountaineers’ low energy level surprised him a bit.
“Leading into today I was really excited about our direction, and I still am with the level of talent and the guys we have on our team,” Engelstad said. “Our energy had been terrific the last couple days … I do think we thrive on energy and youth and enthusiasm. But today I needed to do better. We knew were going to get tested this year. We need guys that have bought into what we’re doing and keep growing.”
Mount St. Mary’s (0-5) led at halftime but committed nine of its 12 turnovers in the second half. North Carolina A&T (1-5) outscored the home team 46-29 after the break to spoil the home opener.
Freshman guard Vado Morse led the Mountaineers with 17 points, and Gibbs — who came over from Drake and was granted a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible this season — scored 15. Nana Opoku, a redshirt freshman forward, netted 11 points and had nine rebounds.
But the Aggies shot 58 percent in the second half to pull away. Qua Copeland led A&T with 19 points, and Ibrahim Sylla had 14 points and nine boards. Kameron Langley handed out eight assists.
Mount St. Mary’s doesn’t play a Northeast Conference game until January, and so far the Mountaineers have traversed a challenging schedule against N.C. State, Hofstra, Marshall, and Maryland.
Engelstad said his players were up for the Terps game Sunday, a 92-77 setback. But the vibe wasn’t the same Wednesday night at home.
“I feel like it’s just a learning process for us,” said Habwe, a sophomore and MSM’s lone returning regular. “We’re very young. A lot of curveballs have been thrown at us. We play a really tough schedule … at this point I think as a team, we just need to grow together.”
North Carolina A&T used a 12-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Copeland from the top of the arc with the shot clock winding down, to grab a 50-38 lead with 12 minutes to play. The Mount answered with a pair of 3-pointers from Morse, only to turn the ball over three times over its next five possessions.
When Sylla’s block on Malik Jefferson’s layup attempt led to a bucket at the other end, the Aggies led 58-48 with 7:12 remaining.
“We need to keep pushing, running the offense,” Gibbs said. “The turnovers will come. We just need to lock up on D when they do come.”
Mount St. Mary’s travels to Morgan State on Sunday, and then visits Loyola on Dec. 1 before returning to Knott Arena on Dec. 8 to host Lehigh.
One of those graduated players from last year was sensational guard Junior Robinson, who won NEC Player of the Year honors and ended his career as the third leading scorer in Mount history. Filling his void, along with a few others, is one of Engelstad’s priorities.
When Habwe was asked after the game about MSM’s potential for success this year, he pulled from an old sports adage and started to say “it’s not a sprint” before Engelstad helped him with the “marathon” ending when Habwe couldn’t come up with the words.
“I do think the future is very, very bright here,” Engelstad added. “We’ve just got to keep pushing.”