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Robert Morris falls in NEC Championship

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Mount St. Mary's jumped out to a 17-point lead in the opening 13 minutes and went on to upset Robert Morris 88-71, preventing the Colonials from reaching the NCAA Tournament.

Stakes are high in college basketball’s mid-major conference championship games and so are the adrenaline levels of everyone involved.

Regardless of the matchup or the two teams’ regular-season records, the winner is granted one of 32 automatic bids into the NCAA Tournament, while the other will turn its attention to tournaments of lesser relevance.

Robert Morris’ first-place finish in NEC play was flushed away before the NEC Tournament Championship game Tuesday night, and the Colonials (21-13, 14-2 NEC) will now have to keep their eyes on the NIT, after being upset 88-71 by Mount St. Mary’s (16-16, 9-7 NEC) before 3,024 at the Sewall Center.

For the Colonials, the game came down to one stat—field goal percentage—where they were significantly outpaced by the Mount, 60.4 percent to 45.5 percent. And it didn’t help that Mount St. Mary’s seemed to make all its early 3-point attempts.

Robert Morris’ 2-3 zone could not have been less effective against Mount St. Mary’s, the NEC’s third-best 3-point shooting team. The Mountaineers’ Julian Norfleet and Will Miller hit six of their first seven from beyond the arc, and Mount St. Mary’s bolted to an early 34-17 lead.

“I thought they might come out of the zone, because we were just shooting it so well,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “But they stayed with it and we were able to stretch that lead out.”

Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said he tried switching from the zone later in possessions, but it was difficult because Mount St. Mary’s guards were too much of 1-on-1 threats.

In addition, rebounding was at a minimum for the Colonials, who were slow to react from their programmed defensive positions, and they got outrebounded 13 to 8 at the half.

Mount St. Mary’s didn’t ease up, either, taking a 48-32 lead into the locker room.

Toole stuck with the 2-3 zone in the second half, and as the clock wound down, the Colonials even threw a 1-2-2 full-court press at the Mountaineers, who didn’t seem rattled.

But Christian, a former assistant under VCU head coach Shaka Smart, used his full-court “Mayhem” defense, which is modeled after Smart’s “Havoc” defense, for the majority of the game, as well.

It induced 13 Robert Morris turnovers.

Mount St. Mary’s cooled off in the second half from 3-point range, making just 2 of 9, but the Mountaineers remained patient on most possessions.

Their guards were able to get the ball into the middle of the zone, generally to guard Sam Prescott, who would square up and hit 15-foot jump shots at will or dump the ball to the low block, where the Mountaineers scored 40 points on catch-and-finish opportunities.

With a net from one of the Sewall Center’s hoops dangling around his neck, Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said his team didn’t need the 3-point shot to fall because simpler shots were available.

“My strategy today was to put our three best guys at the high post and at the top and allow them to make plays,” he said. “Tonight I only called four plays, which is definitely a career-low for me.”

Lucky Jones said the Colonials were helpless, as the Mountaineers succeeded with every shot option they elected.

“We didn’t take away the high post,” Lucky Jones said. “That’s where they killed us. We kept allowing them to get there, and we sunk in too much, and they continued to hit the three.”

Robert Morris cut the lead to 57-47 with an 8-0 run with 12:44 left, but three missed layups, two turnovers, a foul and a missed 3-point jumper later, the Colonials found themselves down 18 again.

“That just plays into their hands,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said after the game.

Echoes of celebration from the visitors locker room rung in Toole’s ears as he tried to speak clearly.

“We got it down to 10, and then wanted to make a 10-point play, and those don’t exist,” Toole said. “Ten went right back to 20 pretty quick because we wasted possessions.”

Mixed between the Colonials’ mishaps was another 3-pointer by Mountaineer Rashad Whack, who finished the game with 20 points and was named NEC Tournament MVP.

“All that hard work that you’re doing, all that swimming upstream that you’re trying to accomplish, it’s crushing,” Toole added. “[We played] defense for 30 seconds, then miss a 3, they get the rebound right back and then you’re right back where you started, and it just seemed like we were stuck in the mud all 40 minutes.”

The Mountaineers, who shot 60.4 percent from the field, just needed a couple of layups and free-throws to keep the Colonials from fouling towards the end, and the Mount St. Mary’s student section stormed the court after the final buzzer.

“Tonight I only called four plays, which is definitely a career-low for me.”

Jones was the lone Colonial to receive All-Tournament honors. He finished with 11 points and five rebounds in the championship game. Karvel Anderson finished with 21 points, but was held from the All-Tournament team because of a sickness which kept him scoreless in three halves of the Colonials’ three games.

Robert Morris’ dejected “Crazy Eight” walked off the floor without singing the school’s alma mater, a Sewall Center tradition.

“The eight guys that are in the locker room right now that are crushed were incredible to coach [this season],” Toole said. “And the efforts they gave on an everyday basis really didn’t show tonight, and that’s what’s so upsetting, because they deserve better.”

The season is still not over for the Colonials, who will likely receive an honorable seed in the NIT, and the Sewall Center will leave its doors open for at least another week or two.

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