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Men's Basketball: Long, Mount St. Mary's atop the NEC Conference after successful road stretch

Mount St. Mary's guard Elijah Long works the ball around LIU Brooklyn's Iverson Fleming during the Mountaineer's 79-63 win over the visiting Blackbirds on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, at Knott Arena. Long had a career-high 13 points.
Mount St. Mary's guard Elijah Long works the ball around LIU Brooklyn's Iverson Fleming during the Mountaineer's 79-63 win over the visiting Blackbirds on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, at Knott Arena. Long had a career-high 13 points. (Alan White / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Mount St. Mary's men's basketball team had its game last Saturday against Fairleigh Dickinson postponed for a day, with uncertainty of whether it would even be played.

The Mountaineers held practice in a hotel ballroom. They had a walk-through, using a lacrosse ball rather than a basketball. And the snow from Winter Storm Jonas piled up in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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It was nothing unordinary for Mount freshman guard Elijah Long, a native of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

"When I see this, it's like a joke to me," Long said. "After practice, I wear shorts and stuff, it's nothing really."

As Long felt more at home because of the snow, he continues to become more comfortable in the Mountaineers' lineup. The freshman helped Mount St. Mary's win three of its last four games during a tough road stretch, and is beginning to show strides from where he was at the beginning of the season.

Long scored a career-high 20 points in a loss at Sacred Heart last Thursday. But then on Sunday, a day after the game was originally scheduled to be played, Long pitched in 10 points, six assists, four steals, and three rebounds in an 87-72 win that moved the Mount into sole possession of first place in the Northeast Conference.

"All the freshmen at the beginning of the year, they want to take such a big bite of the apple, and they're not ready," Mountaineers coach Jamion Christian said. "Eli, like most freshmen, we really had to try to just slow him down, get him to understand the process of what it takes to be great, and he's been able to do that.

"I think his mindset's been better. His mindset has just been about helping our team win."

Long came off of the bench in the first eight games of the season before his first career start against American on Dec. 1. He has started all 15 games since then, although he scored double-digit points just once in those first 13.

But the freshman, who went to John Carroll School in Bel Air after growing up in Canada, has constantly improved. Long averaged 11.8 points over the past four games and has improved his season average to 5.1.

"College, it's not easy, and the transition was kind of hard, not as in school-wise but just so much information and so many things I didn't know about basketball," Long said. "The upperclassmen were telling me, 'You're going to get used to it during the year,' and I feel like it's coming better and it's becoming more easier for me."

The Mount (9-12, 6-2 NEC) hadn't won a game away from Knott Arena all season going into its matchup at Robert Morris on Jan. 14. The Mountaineers lost their first nine road games and another at a neutral site.

But Mount St. Mary's notched victories on the road against Robert Morris, Saint Francis University, and Fairleigh Dickinson on its recent road stretch.

It wasn't just Long that had a standout day against the Knights in Sunday's win. Senior forward Gregory Graves had a season-high 22 points and sophomore Chris Wray scored 14 while shooting 7-for-7 from the field.

The Mountaineers shot at least 45.2 percent or better in all four road contests — including 59.6 percent at Saint Francis on Jan. 16 — and now lead Wagner, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Saint Francis all by a game in the conference standings.

"It shows that we can win on the road," Graves said. "No game is easy, but especially no road game is easy, so it was good that we could get those wins."

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Now, Mount St. Mary's has ascended to first in the NEC — the place where it was predicted to finish in the conference's preseason poll.

The Mountaineers host Robert Morris on Thursday and Wagner for winter homecoming on Saturday, looking to maintain their top spot with more than half of the conference slate still to go. And they'll look to carry some momentum from their recent road success, a stretch that Christian said was an important one for his squad.

"If you were listening to other people around the NEC, they were saying that we weren't the best team in the league and we had the easiest stretch," Christian said. "It's good to kind of put some of those pundits to bed."

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