MOON TOWNSHIP – To prepare for a second consecutive trip to the Northeast Conference title game, Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian looked back on his performance last season, when he thought he over-coached the game.
He called just four plays Tuesday night. Then, he cut down the nets.
Fourth-seeded Mount St. Mary’s used a bunch of 3-pointers to knock off top-ranked Robert Morris 88-71 on Tuesday night and advance to the NCAA tournament.
“You saw a team really connected, and really doing whatever they could to win a championship,” said Christian, the Mountaineers’ second-year coach.
Five Mount St. Mary’s players scored in double figures, led by guard Rashad Whack with 20 points, to give the Mountaineers their first NCAA tournament berth since 2008 and fourth in school history.
Julian Norfleet (17), Taylor Danaher (15), Sam Prescott (15) and Will Miller (11) also finished in double figures for the Mountaineers, whose four NEC championship game victories all came on the road.
But after several busloads of fans made the four-hour trip from Emmitsburg, Md., to Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers often felt at home, especially after the final buzzer when dozens of fans ran down from the bleachers and danced at mid court to celebrate.
The Mountaineers (16-16) built a 20-point first-half lead and never looked back, shooting 60.4 percent from the field.
“I’m just so proud of us,” said Prescott, one of the Mountaineers’ three senior guards. “Every day, we challenge ourselves to get better. And this is the result – a championship.”
Robert Morris (21-13) never led and never pulled closer within single digits of Mount St. Mary’s in the second half. Robert Morris won both games between the teams during the regular season.
The Mountaineers used a simple and persistent attack to break down Robert Morris’ zone defense, which had limited opponents to an average of 55 points per game in the first two rounds of the NEC tournament.
Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said the Mountaineers did a good job of spacing the floor and moving the ball into the high post, where Prescott made jump shots with ease.
“They made us make choices, and unfortunately it seemed like every choice we made was the wrong one,” Toole said.
With Prescott hitting his mid-range jump shots, Whack, Norfleet and Miller found space behind the arc.
“They executed it better than I could have ever dreamed,” Christian said.
The Colonials, who switched from a man-to-man defense to a zone defense because of defensive woes earlier this season, allowed the Mountaineers to convert 8 of 18 3-point attempts.
Robert Morris cut the lead to 10 points midway through the second half, but the Mountaineers responded with big shot after big shot to increase their lead.
“Teams are going to make runs,” Norfleet said. “They made a run today ... we’ve just been able to withstand those runs and stay together.”
Toole said after his team cut the deficit to 10 points, the Colonials rushed too many possessions, missing a chance to capitalize.
“It just seemed like we were stuck in the mud all 40 minutes,” he said.
Karvel Anderson scored 21 points to lead the Colonials, who lost the NEC championship game for the third time in the past four years.
The team has dressed just eight players since January, when the university suspended four players, including two starters, one year for an unspecified violation of school policy.
The Mountaineers made their first four 3-pointers of the game and finished the first half 6 of 9 from 3-point range. They shot 69.2 percent (18 of 26) to take a 48-32 lead into halftime.
The last time Mount St. Mary’s and Robert Morris met with the NEC title on the line, the Mountaineers scored just 46 points the whole game in a two-point loss at the Charles L. Sewall Center.
Norfleet led the Mountaineers with 14 first-half points, one of three Mount St. Mary’s players in double figures after the first half.
It was the second consecutive season Mount St. Mary’s upset a top-seeded Robert Morris team in the NEC tournament after the Mountaineers beat the Colonials last year in the semifinals.
The two teams have met in seven of the past nine conference tournaments, and Mount St. Mary’s has won four of those matchups.