If a Mount St. Mary’s team that finished 8-21 the season prior wasn’t ready for the 2013 NEC championship against LIU Brooklyn, the reigning conference champions, they certainly were ready this time around. Right out of the gate, the Mountaineers couldn’t miss a shot, hitting 12 of their first 16 attempts, building a double-digit lead in the first half.
Remarkably, Robert Morris wasn’t able to get back into the game, unless you count a run which cut the deficit to 10 points halfway through the second half. It was just one of those nights of wonderful shot making, perfect execution and sound coaching for Mount St. Mary’s. But how exactly did the Mount earn their first NCAA tournament bid since the 2007-08 season? How did they dominate a Colonials club that came in with a 16-2 NEC record and had won their previous five championship games on their home floor?
1) Shredding the 2-3 Zone
If any high school or college coach needs tape on how to attack a 2-3 zone, then they should request the tape from this championship game! Of course, you’ll need an ultra athletic wing like Sam Prescott utilizing the high post, but the Mount sure made it look easy. It likely benefitted the Mount that this was the third time they faced Robert Morris’ 2-3 zone. Despite the extra looks, credit Jamion Christain and his staff for a near perfect game plan.
With Prescott settling in the high post, Rashad Whack and Julian Norfleet used pristine ball movement and astute dribble penetration to find Prescott and the corner shooters, which compromised the attacking defense almost immediately. Thanks to Prescott and the Mount’s scorching shooting from the start, Christian’s group shot a ridiculous 24 of 35 from inside the arc (68.6%)! And this was after the Mount hit just 46.6% of their two-point attempts in conference play. Quite simply, they dominated the interior largely due to Prescott’s play (15 points, four assists) and Taylor Danaher’s dominance (15 points, five rebounds) over the smaller Colonials down low. Hitting five three-pointers in the first half also works wonders in stretching the zone.
It was a rather stunning development – in the two previous meetings with Robert Morris, the Mount scored just 0.98 and 0.85 ppp in two losses. Those were two of the five worst offensive performances from the Mount in league play. And yet, the third time around, they scorched Robert Morris to the tune of 1.28 ppp on 60.4% shooting. It was an epic showing.
2) A Balanced Attack Offensively
Everyone knows about the importance of the Mount’s Big Three – Norfleet, Whack and Prescott – as they combined to score 52 of the Mount’s 88 points tonight. But contributions from others were also key in tonight’s victory. Taylor Danaher made all six of his shot attempts, even though a majority of those shots were taken with a Colonial violating his space in the paint (it also pays to be 7’0″ especially when the tallest defender is just 6’9″ in Stephen Hawkins). Will Miller came in off the bench to chip in with 11 points. In fact, Miller’s two corner threes in the first half extended the Mount’s lead to an impressive 18 points and officially put Andy Toole’s club on its heels. It was only the fifth time all season Miller had registered double figures for a contest.
When you think about it, the slender 6’6″ forward was the perfect player to stick in the corner against RMU’s 2-3 zone. All he does is shoot threes; more than 90% of his 138 shot attempts came from behind the three-point line this season. He surely didn’t let his coaches down with the corner three assignment, as he drained three of four rainmakers while stretching the zone to open up the soft underbelly for dribble penetration.
Even the players who didn’t score much – Byron Ashe, Gregory Graves – were able to contribute in other ways. The aforementioned two players combined for nine rebounds with four of those coming on the offensive glass.
3) Shutting Down the Colonial Big Guns
It took a long time, but Rashad Whack is finally getting the respect he deserved and I’m not talking about a NEC all-conference second team selection last week. He was just named the NEC tournament MVP, and honestly, I can’t think of a better choice. His offensive contributions aside (he scored 69 points on 42 shots in the three tournament games including a 26-footer dagger to beat St. Francis), his efforts on the defensive end changed the course of at least two games. In the road semifinal versus Wagner, Whack helped make Latif Rivers final home game at the Spiro Center as miserable as possible. The sharp shooting Wagner guard mustered just seven points on 2 of 14 shooting, with much of that due to Whack’s terrific defensive acumen.
Tonight, the NEC Player of the Year Karvel Anderson did score a team high 21 points, but much of that came in the second half when the game was firmly in the Mount’s control. He also needed 17 shots to get there, thus Anderson wasn’t his usual efficient self. Credit Whack and the Mount’s overall defense – even sidekick Lucky Jones couldn’t get comfortable as he finished with 11 points on 11 shots. When the Jones/Anderson combo is held in check, especially in the early going, manufacturing offense is much more difficult.
It simply was one of those magical nights for the Mount and now they’ll likely head to Dayton for a spot in the First Four of the NCAA tournament. The Mount Maniacs will be celebrating this win for days to come. And all Jamion Christian needed was two seasons to get there.