The Mountaineers didn't have much luck in their two regular-season meetings against the Colonials. But, they struck gold when it mattered the most Tuesday night. The Mount scored 48 first-half points on a blistering 69.2% that powered them to an easy victory.
Senior guard Julian Norfleet had not found much success against the RMU 2-3 zone in their two prior contests. However, he submitted a half for the ages when his team needed him the most. He found his shot early in the game, and at times, it seemed like everything he threw up was going in. Instead of worrying about what everyone else was saying, Norfleet had a renewed focus going into this game, "Today, I just locked-in on focusing on winning the game."
It may have been Norfleet early, but it was fellow senior guards Sam Prescott and Rashad Whack that finished the game strong for MSM. It was no accident that the 'Big Three' of St. Mary's had great games, head coach Jamion Christian said after the game, "My strategy today was to put our three best guys in the high post and at the top, and allow them to make plays." The trio finished with a combined 52 points on 18-35 shooting - all three made the NEC Tournament team.
The Mountaineers got major contributions for their entire roster. Sophomore center Taylor Danaher scored the first bucket of the game, and was a load in the paint - 6-6 from the floor for the game. On his ability to score in the paint, Danaher said, "The coaches made a great game plan and Sam was able to get in the high post area again, and again...so I had just a lot of catch-and-finish opportunities."
Five different players had scored for the Mount by the under-12 media timeout, and they led 18 - 12. Freshman forward Will Miller connected on three triples from the corner that pushed their lead to 20 points with 6:33 remaining in the half. At times Robert Morris was able to score with MSM, but were unable to get stops on the defensive end. St. Mary's led 48 - 32 at halftime.
The Colonials mustered an 8-0 run midway through the first half that brought them within 10 points of the Mountaineers. But, a three-pointer by Whack on the next Mount possession ended the run, and RMU never got closer than that. MSM ran away from Robert Morris from the opening tip, and they won handedly, 88 - 71.
Whack led St. Mary's with 20 points on 6-10 from the field. Norfleet scored 17 on 5-11 from the field, including 3-7 from beyond the arc. Prescott contributed 15 points, and pulled-down a game-high six rebounds.
The RMU players were mostly disappointed in the team's defense, said senior guard Anthony Myers-Pate, "We just weren't urgent on defense." Junior guard/forward Lucky Jones added, "We didn't take away the high post, that's where they killed us...we just did a bad job on defense."
An emotional Andy Toole (Robert Morris head coach) reflected on how privileged he felt coaching the eight guys in his locker room, "It's been incredibly rewarding. The eight guys in the locker room right now that are crushed were incredible to coach. The efforts they gave on a daily basis really didn't show tonight, and that's what's so upsetting because they deserved better...they deserved better."
When asked if his team got tight as they cut the deficit to 10 points in the second half, Toole responded, "Yeah absolutely, we got it down to 10 and then wanted to make a 10-point play, and those don't exist; 10 went right back to 20 pretty quick because we wasted possessions."
Christian had a sense that his team was on a special run, "I knew after we beat Wagner, we were going to win today." The Mountaineers are certainly on a special run at the moment: they came back from 18-points down against St. Francis Brooklyn in the NEC Quarterfinals, and then won two consecutive road games against the top-two seeded teams to advance to the 'big dance'.
We'll have to wait until Sunday to see who the Mount will play in the NCAA Tournament, regardless, Christian felt his teams' style gives them an advantage no matter who they play, "I think our style is going to be difficult for anyone that we do play...not many teams have three senior guards like we have."
He cited the teams' tough non-conference schedule as to why his team will be a tough out, "We've played these kinds of games and we did that on purpose. We did that to toughen our team up for March. One of things I learned from Pat Flannery and coach Smart at VCU is if you want to be a good team in March, you have to challenge yourself in November."