Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mounting Success

The road to success is not straight. It's one of the more popular chestnuts of the King James Bible. In the Northeast Conference, a topsy-turvy, up-for-grabs league that's about as predictable as the next Britney Spears meltdown, the axiom has proved prophetic.

Mount St. Mary's University, the little-exposed school situated in the near-Baltimore backdrop, shocked the lower-tier Division-I conference this season, emerging from the underworld to claim the Northeast Conference title. Sacred Heart was the original favorite. Central Connecticut had lost too much of its offensive punch with the loss of Javier Mojica (2007 NEC Player of the Year) and Obie Nwadike, easily the most underrated (and undersized) big man in the conference prior to his final year. While the Blue Devils returned Tristan Blackhood, one of the conference's top all-around players and an NEC player of the year hopeful, the overabundance of playoff-greenhorns, youthfulness, and lack of veteran leadership down the stretch hampered them.

Robert Morris seemed to be taking the conference by storm with the scintillating, floor-controlling inside-outside tandem of NEC Player of the Year Tony Lee and A.J. Jackson. That, plus one of the conference's best all-around players in Jeremy Chappell and first-year coach Mike Rice, a former Pitt assistant who employed a militaristic zeal to mold the Colonials into one of the most disciplined and finely-tuned teams in the conference, was convincing.

Mount St. Mary's sacred quest towards a conference championship was kick-started by a late-season tear. The Mount won four of their last five conference games. Finally, residual effects of their early-season winning streak and vigorous out-of-conference slate became evident. In the first round of the Northeast Conference playoffs, a win over Quinnipiac didn't seem like much of a daunting task. A one-man wrecking crew (scoring fiend DeMario Anderson, who averaged 21.7 points, shouldered the burden of savior for the young and injury-riddled Bobcats throughout the season) with a vulnerable perimeter defense couldn't muster up the firepower to pull off a dramatic win at the Mount. With the defense keying on Anderson (who finished with 21 points while dishing out five assists but sat out the final six minutes of the game), the Mount proved to be too much. Jean Cajou popped off the bench to score a season-high 20 points.

Jeremy Goode, the smurf-sized guard who dipped below the recruiting radar while coming up in Charlotte, N.C., scored 15 points and deposited five dimes. Goode simply came into his own during the post-season tournament. He dropped 23 points against top-seeded Robert Morris (which captured the NEC regular-season title) as the Mount cruised to a convincing 83-65 eye-popper. In stamping the monumental upset, the Mount snapped the Colonials school-record 14-game winning streak. The fun didn't stop there. The little engine that could scored 13 and shelled out five assists, but Cajou was once again the story. The 6-foot-3 freshman guard that averaged 7 points during the regular season scored 15, including some timely three-pointers, as the Mount coasted past Sacred Heart, 68-55.

The Mount punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the Milan Brown era. They took the NEC world by wildfire in the process. With the Mount out of the top-four picture throughout the season, it was an epic surge. Cajou, a native of Fairfax, Va. Native who averaged under 20 minutes of playing time the first half of the season, averaged 17.3 points during the pulsating, six-game winning streak that the Mount concluded the regular season with. During the NCAA tournament play-in game, the Mount came roaring back from a first-half deficit, outscoring Coppin State 36-26 in the second half, en route to recording a 69-60 victory. Goode led all scorers with 21 points and handed out a game-high five assists. It was pure alchemy as the Mount, originally written off by the naysayers, was giving the outside world an efficient account of themselves and their potential. The wheels would fall off the low-gear NCAA tournament bike, however, as MSM ran into a power wall known as Tyler Hansbrough and the UNC Tar Heels. Psycho T and Ty Lawson, both of whom hung 21, dumped off the Mount to the tune of a 113-74 washout. Could anyone from even a conference as unpredictable as the NEC have envisioned them playing at that stage, though?

Now that's faith. The road to success is not straight.