Is Junior Robinson the greatest player in the history of Mount St. Mary’s basketball? I ask this coming from a real place, because it’s something I do not know for certain. I do know the 5-foot-5 point guard is the third leading scorer in program history and holds the record for most games started and played. He was the 2017-18 NEC Player of the Year.
The merits of Robinson’s success compared to other greats at Mount St. Mary’s has surely been discussed.
Which is why the end result of Wednesday night’s NEC quarterfinals game was so surprising.
With Robert Morris leading by two points and the Mount holding for a chance to tie or win, Robinson took the ball, accelerated past Dachon Burke, rose up for a jumper a foot in front of the free throw line and…
Was blocked from behind by Burke.
It was a movie that in no way went by script. In a movie, Robinson hits that jumper and leads the team to a dramatic overtime victory. No. 2 Mount St. Mary’s would have once again bullied No. 7 Robert Morris in the NEC tournament and Robinson would have led the Mountaineers back to the NCAA Tournament.
This time there’s no madness. Just sadness.
Unless, of course, you root for Robert Morris.
This one was personal for a lot of fans, myself included. I remember sitting in plain shock in the bleachers of the Sewall Center after getting stomped by Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC Tournament in both 2013 and 2014. Of course, both of those losses were followed by storied NIT wins against Kentucky and St. John’s, but… man… it still hurt. Bad.
What made it worse was RMU could never really get revenge. Sure, the team swept the Mount in 2015 but didn’t get another shot at them in the NEC Tournament. The 2016 season was a disaster and RMU lost a close game in last year’s NEC semifinals at Mount St. Mary’s. That’s just the recent history. So many people wanted this so bad, and we finally got it.
Dachon Burke’s play was simply amazing. As Lee pointed out on Twitter, Robinson has hit that shot thousands of times in his life. He’s so used to adjusting to larger defenders, and Burke still made a play. The sophomore has been nothing short of incredible on both sides of the ball this season. Given the weight he has to carry on offense (Burke ranked third in percent of shots taken by a player in conference play), the fact that he could still dominate on defense was spectacular. Ryan Peters of NYC Buckets did a great job explaining Burke’s credentials for NEC Defensive Player of the Year. Although that honor went to Mount’s Chris Wray, the sophomore once again proved he’s one of the NEC’s elite.
RMU showed a toughness we haven’t seen from this group all season. Mount – like they did in the previous two blowouts – went on a huge run at the end of the first half, this time of the 16-0 variety. Freshman point guard Jon Williams hit a 3-pointer to end the run with one second left in the first half. Robert Morris trailed by 10 and were very much in the danger zone entering the final 20 minutes of the game. Mount was one 6-0 spurt away from shutting the door.
But that didn’t happen. The Colonials, even after a sloppy start to the second half, manufactured a 15-2 run of their own. The biggest difference was the play of Matty McConnell.
I, along with about every other RMU fan, was disappointed with McConnell in the first half, where he shot 1-5 and 0-4 from 3-point range. The junior is a streaky shooter, but he’s always had success at Knott Arena, where he entered 9-17 career from beyond the arc.
McConnell turned it on in the second half, knocking down some huge – and I mean yuge 3-pointers. Sixteen of his 18 points came in the second half. He also contributed nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. Two of those 18 points was an emphatic slam in traffic, something that made me jump out of my seat.
For as important as Burke is to the team – which is very important, considering he is the undisputed go-to scorer – McConnell attacking the rim and knocking down in-rhythm 3-pointers is equally as important. He brings so much to the table. When his shot gets going, it opens the entire offense.
But my biggest takeaway from this game was just how collective of an effort it was. All eight players who saw minutes in this game made an impact. Charles Bain continues to struggle shooting in traffic at the rim but grabbed eight rebounds and played fantastic defense. Little-used Chris Coalman continues to come on late in the season, adding six points in 22 minutes.
Then there was Seth Rouse. It took guts to put Rouse, a walk-on junior, on the floor in the biggest game of the year. He played five minutes, all in the second half, and knocked down the game-tying 3-pointer with 13:45 to go. All told, six players hit a 3-pointer en route to a 10-23 effort from deep.
But in all honesty, Rouse probably deserves more minutes moving forward. Against an athletic team like Mount, RMU’s best defense was switching on every screen. Rouse, a small forward, could do that much better than someone like Ronnie Gombe (DNP) or David Cole (six minutes). Rouse also adds (potentially) the ability to knock down some good looks from beyond the arc. RMU’s 2-3 zone defense has improved (which isn’t saying much) but is not nearly consistent enough to count on.
Wednesday night was such a great team effort. It felt good – really good – to finally get the better of Mount St. mary’s in an elimination game. Now, in an extremely Bill Belichick voice, we’re on to Wagner.