The No. 1 Mountaineers (19-15) trumped No. 4 Saint Francis (Pa) (16-16), 71-61 to win the 2017 Northeast Conference Basketball Tournament title. They will represent the NEC in the Division 1 National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament for the fifth time, in hopes of finally winning the coveted, national crown.
Under the leadership of Head Coach, Jamion Christian, the Mountaineers have made it to the NEC title game in 3 of his past 5 seasons. 2017 marked the first time in school history that the Mount hosted the final.
In front of a crowd 3,121 strong, the Mountaineers started off the half aggressive. After St. Francis took an early 4-0 lead, Sophomore Guard, Elijah Long, made a lay-up to put the Mount on the board, 2:28 into the contest.
The Mountaineers then went on to take their first lead of the game, with 15:00 left to play. Their 8-6 lead soon increased to 17-8 after the Mount went on a 9-2 run. After playing only 8 minutes in his first tournament final, Long, had already recorded 10 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 assist.
While continuing to enjoy a 19-9 edge against the Red Flash of St. Francis, the Mount’s defense started to struggle. St. Francis started to notch point after point, to eventually take their second lead of the game with 5:22 in the first half. Their 22-21 advantage soon grew to 31-23, to end the half.
Long explained that during halftime, Christian came into the locker room and said, “Let’s go!” and then started to clap. Christian then told his players, “Let’s play our game now. Don’t worry [and] don’t get caught up in the emotion of the game… let’s just lock up on defense and get back in transition.”
Junior and Forward, Chris Wray, commented at how Coach Christian told the team, “Would you guys believe me if I told you, we got these guys right where we want them?”
After the game, Christian stated that he meant those words. He stated, “I mean I just felt the emotions high. [St. Francis was] riding on into the half and we were able to withstand that run. I just felt that we were in a really good place.”
Coming out of the locker room after the half, the fans started to cheer louder and louder, and the players used it as motivation. The cheers would go on to be the spark needed to ignite the Mountaineer’s engine.
21 seconds into the second half, Junior and Guard, Junior Robinson made a lay-up to start the Mount’s comeback. From there, the Mount would go on a 9-2 run to take a 34-33 lead.
With 14:34 until a winner would be decided, St. Francis tied it back up at 34 from a free throw, but the Mountaineer’s flame would not be easily extinguished.
Thanks to Christian’s “Mayhem” defense, the Red Flash would be limited to just a single point for the next 5 minutes. The Mountaineers then used this opportunity to go on a 15-1 run, to take a 49-35 lead with 9:42 left in the half.
Though St. Francis would rack off 5 unanswered points, it would not be enough, as the Mount would extended their lead, 62-48, with just 2:03 remaining.
Robinson, who shoots 87.5% from the free throw line, was sent there 4 times in the last 2 minutes of play. Long was sent there once and both he and Robinson, added 8 more points to the Mount’s total 71 points.
The game would end with Robinson dribbling the ball, unguarded and alone on one side of the court. When the buzzer finally sounded, the home crowd stormed the court and tears came down from the player’s eyes. Robinson went over to hug his mother as she held and congratulated him.
Robinson made clear that, “My mom has always been there for me. She has been my biggest fan ever since I was younger. To be able to share [this] moment is just amazing.”
“I’m just so happy for our players. These guys worked really hard. They put up with me for 11 months out of the year and I can be demanding, believe it or not and they’ve done a great job at accepting of what we ask them to do in terms of being a teammate,” Christian remarked.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Schisler.