After trailing for most of the game, Rashad Whack, in the face of incredible pressure, calmly swished an open three-pointer near the top of the key to guide Mount St. Mary’s to a thrilling and rather improbable comeback victory. St. Francis led by as many as 19 points in the second half and held an 11-point advantage with just over two minutes remaining. For much of the game, the stunned Mount crowd of 1,309 looked on incredulously; after all, a scenario where the Mount moved onto the NEC tournament semifinals seemed impossible as the clock continued to tick away.
But even if it looked hopeless to the outside world, Jamion Christian – the ever so optimistic second year head coach – continued to preach patience to his guys.
“I really credit our team for continuing to believe in each other, for continuing to believe in our scheme,” Christian said after the win. “When it looked the bleakest, our guys continued to rally around each other. Focusing on the little details of things, and then we got some lucky breaks at the end there.”
On his team’s execution in the final seconds, as chaotic as they seemed to be, Christian quipped, “We had a chance to get a shot to win it at the end. I have two great players, two great guys made great plays.”
The Whack game winning three-pointer wouldn’t have been possible had the Terriers executed better down the stretch. But with Brent Jones and Aleksandar Isailovic – the Terriers two best ball handlers and free throw shooters – on the bench having fouled out, Glenn Braica was forced to put several players, namely Lowell Ulmer, on the floor who didn’t excel at the charity stripe. Ulmer’s two missed free throws with St. Francis leading by two points with eight ticks left on the clock would have iced the game, but truth be told there were several other factors that led the Mount’s amazing comeback, and the Terriers’ epic collapse.
In the final two minutes, the Terriers coughed the ball up four times and committed an intentional foul after a turnover. It was a perfect storm of late game execution for the Mount – fouling the right players like Ulmer, extending the game with quick fouls – and late game foolishness for St. Francis.
“Bottom line we should have finished it out,” said a disappointed Braica, who’s now lost three consecutive playoff games in the NEC tournament. “We didn’t and that’s life. We live with it and we face up to it. We didn’t close it out and that’s very disappointing.”
Braica’s game plan early on was executed perfectly, at least through 30 minutes of play. After one half, the Terriers outscored their less athletic opponents inside the paint 28-8. Moreover, the slow tempo played right into the Terriers’ strength (61 total possessions after one half), while they limited the Mount to zero points in transition.
Overall, St. Francis held a 33-21 advantage at the break, despite Jalen Cannon being forced to sit on the bench for the final seven minutes due to early foul trouble. With an opportunity to close the gap against the Terriers sans their all-conference first team star, the Mount were outscored 10-5 to close out the half.
The Mount’s inability to score in transition and defend down low wasn’t their only problem, as the players clearly lacked energy in the half-court set. Much of the time, the shell-shocked Mountaineers stood around on offense waiting for Whack or Julian Norfleet to create off the dribble. The stunning lack of movement and cohesion, not to mention the Terriers’ efficient play, allowed St. Francis to dictate the pace. That aspect of the game plan was certainly critical – when St. Francis has more than 68 possessions in a conference game, they were just 2-7 going into tonight. And the Mount coaching staff was cognizant of that.
“The pace was critical for us,” Christian explained. “We talked about getting the game to a certain pace and in the first half they did a really good job of not allowed us to (play at our optimal pace). Quite honesty, they put their guys in certain spots on the floor and made it very difficult to get there and trap.”
The athleticism and controlled aggression of the Terriers bigs forced Christian to keep Will Miller, one of the Mount’s best three-point shooters, on the bench. Miller simply was too much of a defensive liability against the likes of Amdy Fall, Ulmer and Wayne Martin, all who combined for 22 first half points on 16 shots.
Not that the interior alternatives fared much better for the first three-quarters of the contest. Taylor Danaher and Gregory Graves were consistently beaten off the dribble and out-muscled down low, giving up easy looks at the rim. Their apparent lack of aggression – the Mount trio of Graves, Danaher and Miller had a combined zero fouls after one half of play – dug the Mount a big hole.
But in the end, a 35-15 Mountaineers run in the final 9:04 of the game propelled the home team to a semifinal showdown with the second seeded Wagner Seahawks. In the second half alone, the Mountaineers got to the line 31 times, which obviously generated some easy points. They also forced 13 Terrier turnovers in the second stanza, after only extracting one in the first half.
Rashad Whack scored a game high 28 points in the victory, while Julian Norfleet chipped in with 17 points. Sam Prescott only had nine points, but he scored five of those in the final two minutes. As a team, the Mount were still victorious despite a 5 of 22 shooting performance from behind the arc and four fast break points.
For St. Francis, their NEC playoff drought extends for another season. Had the Terriers held on like they were supposed to, it would have been their first postseason victory since the 2002-03 season, when they defeated Central Connecticut in the NEC quarterfinals. All told, this was St. Francis’ eighth straight loss in postseason play.
For Cannon, this loss stings as much as any defeat in his career, and understandably so. “I’d trade it all, I’d rather win than get the (individual) accolades,” Cannon said with his head down at the press conference table. “I’d trade everything for just one playoff win.”