"Our guys are locked in. They want to win. They want to compete. They want to show well on the national stage," said Mount St. Mary's University Head Men's Basketball Coach Dan Engelstad.https://t.co/P0FuiGiPsw
.@dc2998 took no offense at being slotted in Thursday's First Four round despite possibly meeting Michigan two days later. “We’re here to win games,” the @MountHoops point guard said. “So whatever we need to do, we’re going to be ready and we’re going to be well prepared.” https://t.co/qmo5xLxd1l
Mount St. Mary's takes on Texas Southern today at 5:10 p.m. in a First Four game . Damian Chong Qui: "I think this year has really helped all of us grow on and off the floor and as a family. That's more important than anything." https://t.co/ZeOWF0JSmr
“We’re here to take somebody’s head off … for real,” said Nana Opoku, power forward for a Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball team playing Thursday in the NCAA's First Four play-in game. @MountHoopshttps://t.co/Jc61fzxaED
Mount St. Mary’s men’s basketball will meet Texas Southern (16-8) in a No. 16 seed play-in on Thursday for a chance to meet the Big Ten’s Michigan (20-4), the No. 1 seed in the East Region. https://t.co/90JfyPchvV
EDITORIAL: Deep in Frederick County’s Catoctin Mountains, tiny Emmitsburg is home to a double-Cinderella, with Mount St. Mary’s University teams in both the men’s and women’s brackets. https://t.co/hPjQdq8njj
Mount St. Mary's University men’s and women’s teams have created another milestone in its rich hoops history, as both won Northeast Conference tournaments to earn spots in their respective NCAA tournaments. https://t.co/rbOD3j0vfD
Only three times in the history of the Northeast Conference tournament had a number-4 seed broken through and hoisted the trophy. Mount St. Mary’s associate head coach Will Holland was determined to tell his players about the first time it happened 13 years ago. Holland was an expert on the subject matter – back in 2008, Holland played for the fourth seeded Mountaineers squad that stunned Robert Morris and Sacred Heart in back-to-back road tournament games to win it all.
And so on the championship eve of the 2021 NEC tournament finals, head coach Dan Engelstad asked Holland to address the team and educate them on the moment when the 6-foot-4 wing, then a sophomore, became a champion after his team defeated Sacred Heart at the Pitt Center, 68-55, in front of a crazed crowd of 2,700 Pioneer fans.
There were a lot of similarities between the two tough, defensive minded squads of 2008 and 2021, and Holland was there to remind them of that. “When things were going really good for us, just staying with it and when things ended up going bad with us, not getting too down. Just trying to stay even the entire way through,” Holland said when describing what he said to the players that night.
The five-year coach then challenged the league’s best defensive unit hours before their showdown at the Chace Athletic Center as a significant underdog.
“Coach Holland, the way he left it was: so when you guys win tomorrow, tell me how it feels. Tell me how it feels, because I can’t even describe it,” Engelstad said when recalling the end of Holland’s now famous talk.
One evening later, there was Damian Chong Qui and Nana Opoku at the postgame press conference being asked to describe their emotions after a nearly flawless performance that resulted in a surprising 73-68 victory over the hosting Bulldogs.
“This is the greatest feeling of my life, I can’t even put it into words,” Chong Qui, sporting a white championship t-shirt, said in the Zoom conference call.
Opoku, rightfully selected as the tournament’s most valuable player, followed it up later on with: “This is just something you can’t even describe.”
Like Holland, Engelstad was part of both championship teams – he was on Milan Brown’s staff as a first year assistant for the 2007-08 season – although it was a fortuitous moment that led to Engelstad’s involvement with the team.
“I was making good money for a 22-year old,” Engelstad said when asked what he was doing after graduating from St. Mary’s as the Division III program’s all-time assist leader with 413 helpers. “One of my close friends and I were going to go into business together; we created a LLC called Fast Break Training.”
As Engelstad and his friend were literally about to sign a contract to rent a facility for their hoops training business, Brown interrupted the meeting with a call. He was looking for a third person to join his staff and got a recommendation from his trusted assistant coach Kevin Robinson, who also was a St. Mary’s alum. “(Brown) offered me $5,000 and grad school, but it also was a third assistant coaching position,” Engelstad said of the call.
Despite the allure of starting a promising business, Engelstad couldn’t say no to the opportunity to get his foot in the door with a Division I program. He took the offer, cancelled the meeting and the rest is history.
Brown certainly doesn’t regret Engelstad’s spur-of-the-moment decision. “I knew that in the role he was going to be in as a third assistant not making a lot of money, I wouldn’t have to wind him up to be a go-getter,” Brown, now an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, said of Engelstad. “He was a self motivated guy. That was the thing that was most impressive to me.”
As Mount St. Mary’s capped off its fourth championship in 14 seasons, the parallels between the first and last championship are hard to ignore and it goes far beyond Holland and Engelstad’s involvement with both teams. Allow me to go through the similarities between each roster.
Winning Point Guard Play
While both NEC all-conference first teamer Damian Chong Qui and all-time Mount great Jeremy Goode (2006 – 2010) didn’t necessarily possess exact skill sets when serving as their respective team’s floor general, their statistical profiles are strikingly similar.
Chong Qui ‘21
Chong Qui clearly served as the team’s backbone and leader this season, whereas Goode, as a sophomore, was surrounded by veterans that helped spread out leadership roles. Goode’s impact on the court nevertheless wasn’t understated.
“He had elite speed and because of his size, his toughness that he played with (was elite),” Brown said when asked to describe Goode’s game. “He never stopped going into the paint. It didn’t matter what they did to him or how they hit him, he never stopped.”
While Goode exerted his will off the bounce and got to the charity stripe a superb 740 times during his storied career, Chong Qui is a little more perimeter oriented with a standout ability to score in the mid-range game and behind the arc. The 5-foot-8 guard’s two clutch threes in the second half of the championship win was evidence of that. Despite the differences however, the two point guards have several overlapping qualities: speed, toughness and the willingness to do anything for their team in order to win. They were the engines that drove their programs to success, and now the NCAA tournament.
An Elite Defense to Fall Back On
Here’s another statistical overlay to get my point across:
KenPom DRtg (pts/100 poss)
95.1 (2nd NEC)
94.8 (1st NEC)
The defensive philosophy for both rosters has been essentially the same – play very solid half-court defense by keeping opponents in front, force them into contested jumpers and shut down off any second chance opportunities. Both squads’ length at the wing and frontcourt positions, in particular, was a real problem for league opponents to contend with. Mezie Offurum, standing tall at 6-foot-8, gives Engelstad enviable length and athleticism at the wing, whereas Brown enjoyed length and toughness in 2008 from Holland, Kelly Beidler (4.2% block rate, 1.8% steal rate) and Jean Cajou (2.1% steal rate).
In the frontcourt, the 2008 Mountaineers were buoyed by their stoic upperclassmen bigs, Sam Atupem (6.0% block rate) and Marcus Mitchell (2.7% block rate, 18.4% defensive rebounding rate).
“They did all of the little things, all of the dirty work – being physical, unselfish, protecting the rim, defended one on one in the post,” Brown said of their duo’s defensive impact. “These two guys were our rocks.”
In the same respect, Opoku (6.3% block rate), Malik Jefferson (21.7% defensive rebounding rate) and Offurum (3.1% steal rate, 15.8% defensive rebounding rate) have been a fantastic trio in their own right, astutely utilizing with their size, physicality and ability to hunt rebounds off of the defensive glass.
“We have really good defensive pieces,” Engelstad said of his group. “We do one-on-one drills every day where you have to guard your man and I think that’s where we’ve given some team fits here as of late. It’s hard to score one-on-one versus Mezie, it’s hard to score one-on-one versus Nana.”
It’s a critical reason why in a one game setting – 2008 against a sharpshooting Sacred Heart squad and 2021 versus a versatile and skilled Bryant group – the Mountaineers have been difficult to beat come March.
Never Giving Up When Your Back is to the Wall
As good as each program was in the NEC tournament, it wasn’t easy sledding by any stretch as they navigated deep into February. The 2007-08 Mountaineers were middling at 6-6 in league play after a tough home loss versus Wagner. The 2020-21 Mount St. Mary’s club found themselves in a similar predicament at 7-7 and trailing by 10 points midway through their road game at Fairleigh Dickinson. And yet both teams found a way to get hot at the right time.
For Brown, the turning point of his season was allowing his guys to play with more freedom offensively. The philosophy shift immediately paid dividends – the Mount scored 1.11 points per possession in their final nine games, eight of them wins, to close out their conference season. Prior to that, they were at 0.95 points per possession in 12 conference tilts.
Brown learned to not harp on the 25-footers, stepbacks or lobs on the offensive end if his guys exerted their effort on the other end. “If you’re defending, then I don’t have anything to say,” he said.
For Engelstad’s group, the team defied expectations with their innate ability to make up the FDU and Saint Francis University deficits when their backs were to the wall. The comeback win in Loretto serves as one of the top in-game recoveries in college basketball.
But through it all, it’s critical to defend and stop the opponent for long stretches.
“Both of these teams kind of took off because of the defense as the backbone and when you figure out how to score along with that defensive prowess,” Engelstad said of both rosters. “That’s when you have a chance to be really good and become dominant.”
Brown wholeheartedly agrees. “Defense travels. You may miss some shots, but your defense travels wherever you go, you can always pack that.”
With the 2020-21 Mountaineers script yet to be finished, one thing is for certain: the defense, point guard strength and never-say-die-attitude will make Engelstad’s group quite formidable wherever they end up in the NCAA tournament bracket.
Here’s to hoping they can win at least one game like Brown’s team did in 2008, when they dropped Coppin State 69-60 in the NCAA Tournament play-in game.
With Mount St. Mary’s qualifying for the NEC tournament in unexpected fashion this past Sunday, it brought to mind how remarkable the Mountaineers final regular season win at Saint Francis was. It’s a game honestly that should hold a spot in the program’s annals when citing great moments.
I, for one, will fondly remember it as the great comeback in Loretto that kept Mount St. Mary’s 2020-21 season alive, even if we didn’t fully know it at the time.
As a refresher, Mount St. Mary’s trailed by seven points with just over a minute remaining after Mezie Offurum’s runner fell short off the glass. Saint Francis’ Marlon Hargis secured the rebound, a tie-up situation ensued, and the possession arrow favored the Red Flash. For all intents and purposes, Saint Francis was going to hold on and defeat a shorthanded Mount squad that came in desperate for a victory to improve their NEC tournament qualification chances. This is where I’ll let Ken Pomeroy’s game flow chart illustrate the gravity of the moment:
That’s quite a valley with one minute left in regulation! At the point when SFU had the ball, up seven with 56 seconds remaining, the Mount possessed a 1.3% chance of winning the game, according to KenPom’s Minimum Win Probability metric. That means you could simulate this game from that exact point and the Mount would come out victorious roughly 13 out of every 1000 times!
Enter Damian Chong Qui, who’s emerged as one of the most clutch players in recent NEC memory. Here were the ensuing possessions that brought Mount St. Mary’s back from the dead, in other words making up a seven-point deficit in less than a minute:
Chong Qui layup, after a steal thanks to ball pressure 90 feet from the Red Flash basket (SFU leads 59-54, 48 seconds left)
DeAndre Thomas made 3, assisted by Chong Qui after driving the lane and kicking out to an open Thomas in the corner (SFU leads 60-57, 34 seconds left)
Chong Qui layup and one (SFU leads 61-60, 17 seconds left)
Chong Qui made 3 (Game tied 63-63, 8 seconds left)
In the span of 50 seconds, Chong Qui had 8 points, 1 assist and 1 steal and the Mount registered 2.75 points per possession! The Red Flash didn’t help their cause with a turnover and 2 missed free throws during that sequence, but the effort to send the game into overtime was remarkable nevertheless, especially once the Mount outscored the Red Flash nine to two in the overtime period to earn their ninth conference win.
That effort from Chong Qui, now a junior, continues to add to his legend of being clutch and stoic when the lights are shining the brightest.
His head coach, Dan Engelstad, attempted to explain Chong Qui’s innate ability to take over a game while reliving the SFU comeback: “We’re down ten (points), (Chong Qui) just kept saying the right stuff in the huddle, like keeping the guys going,” he said of his floor general. “His work ethic is unmatched; the kid is just obsessed with the game and he wants the moment. He always wants the moment.”
Engelstad recalled a game from Chong Qui’s freshman season at Robert Morris where he missed two critical free throws late in the contest that hurt the Mount’s chances to pull off the upset in Moon Township. Since then, the 5-foot-8 guard has been laser focused in those pressure packed moments.
“He’s our engine and he’s our heartbeat,” Engelstad said of the team’s leading scorer, assist man and free throw maker. “We follow him, there’s no hiding behind him. Damian is a huge piece to what we do.”
That much is certain given the Mount’s unexpected departures in-season and freshman Dakota Laffew’s broken hand that prematurely ended his once-promising rookie campaign. As a result, the Mount’s backcourt has considerably thinned out, forcing the dynamic point guard to exert himself even more. Chong Qui has played the second most minutes and has the fifth highest possession rate in the conference, putting Mount St. Mary’s in a position as one of four teams attempting to represent the NEC in the 2021 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis.
Really though, it’s a credit to every player’s resiliency and toughness to find themselves heading to the Spiro Center to take on Wagner in the NEC tournament semifinals this Saturday. “Credit to our guys, they scrap, they fight, they haven’t quit – I told them that’s the moral of the story for life no matter what happen, whatever the circumstance is… you just always fight,” Engelstad said of his team. “That was (Saint Francis) PA for them to pull a game out like that.”
This wasn’t the first fanatical comeback Engelstad has been a part of as a head coach. Six years ago when he was patrolling the sidelines at Southern Vermont College, his Mountaineers (yes, the same mascot as the Mount’s) eliminated a 12-point deficit with 2:58 remaining to Regis College in the New England Collegiate Conference championship game. But unlike last Thursday’s comeback, Southern Vermont fell to Regis in the final seconds after tying the content with six seconds remaining.
With respect to the Mount’s comeback and how it compares historically, if KenPom’s Minimum Win Probability is your metric, then Mount St. Mary’s win over Saint Francis is tied for the 10th best comeback in college basketball this season. For conference only games, you’d have to go as far back as February 4, 2017 when Central Connecticut stunned the same Mountaineers program in a 74-72 comeback victory at the Knott Arena to find the last NEC contest that resulted in an improbable comeback. The Blue Devils had a 1.1% chance to win after trailing by 15 points with 14 minutes remaining.
The NEC All-Defensive Team
With so many credible candidates vying for the NEC’s coveted Defensive Player of the Year award, I decided to come up with my own team from the respectable sample size that’s been the 2020-21 season. One of these players will win the award on Friday, but each of them have been critical to their team’s defensive identity. I’ll order my team in terms of height, with the shortest player listed first!
Mikey Watkins, Merrimack – The junior is the engine leading the vaulted Warrior 2-3 zone, a defensive scheme that boasts the second best defensive efficiency in the league (97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) despite graduating theft artist Juvaris Hayes and charge taker Idris Joyner. Watkins is a big reason why the Merrimack defense is still very difficult to comfortably score on, as evidenced by his 3.2% steal rate that’s 128th nationally. Like Hayes, Watkins’ anticipation, long wingspan and quick lateral movement makes life rough for opponents trying to create plays near the perimeter.
Eral Penn, LIU – Not since Mount St. Mary’s forward Chris Wray has the league seen such a versatile defensive talent as Penn. The three-year power forward leads the league in rebounding at 10.4 boards per game, is tied for fourth in steals at 34 and has the fourth most blocks at 29. What more do you need from an athletic, 6-foot-7 five-man who can provide elite rim protection while also unpredictably blitzing hedges and stripping opposing guards of the ball? It’s no coincidence that LIU’s adjusted defensive efficiency was three points per 100 possessions lower with Penn in the lineup compared to last season.
Mezie Offurum, MountSt. Mary’s – I’ll let Engelstad do the talking on this deserving selection: “He’s such a versatile defender because he can bang with any physical big in the league and he can also, for the most part, keep most of the guards and wings in front and use his length to frustrate them.” The 6-foot-8 wing is an anomaly in a league accustomed to rostering smaller swingmen, and yet Offurum’s length, athleticism and strength is the perfect recipe for the Mount forcing offenses to shoot over the team’s size. Mount opponents have the lowest effective field goal percentage in league play at 44.3% – the GW transfer is a critical reason for that.
Hall Elisais, Bryant – Similar to the former great shot-blockers of NEC lore in St. Francis’ Amdy Fall and Sacred Heart’s Jare’l Spellman, Elisais is a slashing players’ nightmare to deal with around the rim. Now with 124 career blocks in just 49 games (2.5 bpg!) as a Bulldog, the bouncy big with high-major athleticism allows Bryant’s guards and wings to take chances on the perimeter. Why worry if you get beat knowing Elisais is protecting the rim should an opponent get through the Bulldogs’ first layer of zone defense.
Nana Opoku, Mount St. Mary’s – It’s only fitting that the league’s best defense gets two players on my all-defensive team. Again, I’ll let Engelstad state his case for why Opoku may be the most valuable defender in the NEC: “He impacts the game on the ball and off the ball, just the threat of him on the back-line changes shots,” he said. “He’s improved as a rebounder, his rebounding is way up from what it’s been in the past.” Like Penn, Opoku is another big that can guard one through five in a pinch, and do it well. On a Mountaineer team that leads the conference in defensive efficiency by a significant margin, Opoku is the critical centerpiece of the Mount’s attack.
I’ve seen some banter on Twitter of late debating who the next NEC Jim Phelan Coach of the Year should be. I’ve seen viable arguments for at least three different coaches, as there are a lot of worthy candidates in this pandemic shortened season. Allow me to offer objective (at least as best I can) arguments on behalf of the coaches who could receive votes next week for the award.
Jared Grasso – If you take into account Bryant’s entire body of work – non-conference included – the Bulldogs have had the best regular season of anyone in the league at 14-5 overall. It’s not even close in that respect. Out of conference wins over UMass, Stony Brook and New Hampshire as well as a nail-biting loss in the Carrier Dome to Syracuse was mainly responsible for soaring Bryant’s KenPom ranking more than 100 spots from 312 in late November to 187 prior to their NEC showdowns in early January with Central Connecticut. Now sitting at 185 on KenPom’s ledger, they lead the NEC in this ranking as well as overall offensive efficiency (103.1 points scored per 100 possessions). The latter is quite impressive when considering Bryant’s nine newcomers among their 13 scholarships this season.
If you need another analytical metric to bolster Grasso’s case, Bryant’s Game Scores on Barttorvik.com have been consistently good – Syracuse, UMass, Central Connecticut game 1, Merrimack game 2 – and have illustrated the third-year head coach’s ability to get his team to 1) consistently perform in the early, middle and late part of the season despite a COVID-19 pause sprinkled in-between and 2) play well and be successful against different schemes and tempos.
Furthermore, the Bulldogs are currently in the driver’s seat to win the NEC regular season title. Preseason expectations aside (Bryant was tied for third in the preseason poll), the coaches have put significant value on winning the league for this award in the past, and I wouldn’t expect 2020-21 to be any different. It’s very plausible to see the coaches (aka the voters) rewarding Grasso for not just a first place finish but also for turning a 3-win program three years ago into arguably the favorite to get to the NCAA tournament.
Bashir Mason – If shock value is your thing, surely Wagner going from 1-4 in the NEC (1-5 overall if you include a lopsided loss to Seton Hall) to 11-5 in second place is the best thing going in the 2020-21 college basketball season. Before their recent hiccup at Central Connecticut, Wagner had a NEC-leading 10 game winning streak and soared from a “team trying to find its way” to “bonafide NEC contender.” It’s prudent to mention that Wagner was picked eighth in the NEC preseason poll, and most likely the Seahawks will be no worse than the #2 seed in the NEC Tournament.
How has Mason, a two-time Jim Phelan Coach of the Year recipient already, done it? By developing his talent to the point where Wagner has a 4-headed monster in Alex Morales, Elijah Ford, Will Martinez and DeLonnie Hunt. The former two are destined for an all-conference team nod and Morales is quite honestly a Player of the Year candidate, whereas the latter in Hunt will most likely become the NEC’s Rookie of the Year thanks to his mesmerizing blend of quickness, toughness and shotmaking. Considering the way these four started the season, to have these players, as well as guys like Nigel Jackson, Ja’Mier Fletcher and Elijah Allen, contribute at an all-above average level is a testament to the job Mason and his staff have done in developing their student-athletes. Additionally, Wagner has done well to embrace the roster’s strengths as a versatile, slashing squad that leads the NEC in offensive rebounding rate and is second in effective field goal percentage.
Raise your hand if you thought Wagner would have the league’s best offense in NEC play going into March. Yeah, that’s what I thought!
Anthony Latina – Picked 10th in the NEC preseason poll, Sacred Heart has significantly defied expectations in the same way they did in the 2018-19 campaign when they went from ninth in the poll to a 11-7 regular season finish and #3 seed in the NEC tournament. Now with the youngest roster in the conference and the 317th least experienced team in the country per KenPom, Latina has somehow harbored the guard play of Tyler Thomas (Most Improved Player candidate), Aaron Clarke and Alex Watson (1.7 ppg to 7.4 ppg) into a 9-7 NEC finish. And he’s done it with three freshmen – Mike Sixsmith, Bryce Johnson and Matas Spokas – playing significant roles. All three players are posting above average efficiency ratings, not an easy thing to do for any Division I novices.
It’s not a certainty that the Pioneers play in the NEC tournament, although it’s fairly likely at the moment. And for Latina to lose five of his top six scorers (Clarke was the lone holdover) AND lose his starting four-man in Zach Pfaffenberger in the preseason due to injury and to still sneak into the league’s top four is a special accomplishment.
The analytical metrics, particularly efficiency margins and KenPom rating, haven’t been terribly kind to Sacred Heart over the course of 2020-21. That’s mainly due to blowout losses to Wagner (game 1), LIU (game 1) and Saint Francis (game 1). But the Pioneers’ penchant to bounce back and win the second part of these back-to-backs – they did it a remarkable six times this season – should not be discounted in any way. Latina and his staff’s ability to make adjustments on the fly and split all of these series is a major reason why the Pioneers are in an advantageous position here in late February.
Honorable mention goes to Joe Gallo and Dan Engelstad for the jobs they’ve done as well, although I think the trio mentioned above would make up most people’s top three.
Gallo, however, has taken a team who lost three standout seniors, including all-conference first teamer Juvaris Hayes, to being tied for third place going into their final week of the season. And they did it with a massively long COVID-19 pause from Thanksgiving to late December where the team practiced seven times over a 40-day stretch. Engelstad, in his own right, has done very well to get Mount St. Mary’s in the position they’re in, especially after losing Jalen Gibbs, the Mount’s leading scorer at the time, to the transfer portal and having Dakota Laffew go down due to injury. The Mountaineers stand as the league’s best defensive unit going into their pivotal back-to-back showdown at Bryant next week.
We all have biases in this race, myself included, but I wanted to best lay out the arguments for each coach. There are so many great coaches in this league and I can’t wait to see who’s the next Jim Phelan Coach of the Year! Who the coaches decide among their peers will be fascinating.
Greg Herenda doesn’t usually have a guest accompany him when he attends Fairleigh Dickinson’s annual graduation ceremony at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The spring of 2017 was different though, as Herenda swung by Newark Airport beforehand to pick up his guest.
The guest was 6-foot-7, 220-pound Chicago area native Elyjah Williams. The high school senior from Evanston, Illinois was just starting an official visit to FDU that May, late as it may have been in the recruiting season.
As Williams made his way into MetLife Stadium, the physically imposing, yet affable kid had the look of a football player because, well, he was a football player. And a good one at that. The former tight end and defensive lineman at Evanston High had thoughts about playing on the collegiate gridiron, especially after receiving a couple of serious Division I offers. But basketball was his true love, so there he was serving as Herenda’s wing man on graduation day.
That didn’t stop the gregarious Herenda from having a little fun at the FDU graduation ceremony as he brought Williams around to meet the university’s students and facility. His guest, Herenda quipped, was a free agent football player looking to sign with the New York Giants.
“It was actually pretty funny,” Williams said with a chuckle when recalling the event. “A couple of people I think actually believed him.”
The next day Herenda brought Williams to Prestos Pizza, a popular restaurant in Hackensack less than a mile away from the Rothman Center, the Knight’s home basketball court. Herenda likes to bring prospective student-athletes to his favorite pizza joint – it’s part of the process and a way to get to know his recruits in a one-on-one setting. It was on that day at Prestos where Herenda witnessed Williams’s attention to detail firsthand.
“I asked him to grab me a Diet Coke out of the case and it took him about five minutes,” Herenda said. “The next thing you know he comes back with a Diet Coke and on the back of it, it said the name Greg.”
Williams has astutely used Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign to impress his soon-to-be head coach. The teen had meticulously searched Prestos’ entire stock of 20-ounce Diet Coke bottles before finally finding a “Greg” on the back of one. According to Herenda, Williams even spun the bottle around perfectly when presenting the coach’s drink in the sitting booth.
Shortly thereafter on the visit, Williams was offered one of the Knights’ final scholarships for their 2017-18 roster. He swiftly accepted and the ordeal of being in recruitment limbo – should he or shouldn’t he go to prep school to extend his Division I dream – was thankfully over.
“It was definitely a rough process for me personally,” Williams, who a few months earlier had an offer from Holy Cross fall through, said. “When I came to the East Coast I really liked it a lot.”
With a versatile game centered around a myriad of skills and physicality, Williams made an immediate impact as a freshman. It wasn’t easy to do given FDU’s talent base and incoming recruiting class, which also included Jahlil Jenkins and Noah Morgan. Nevertheless, Williams was part of the Knights’ rotation for much of the 2017-18 campaign.
His effort that season in a January road game versus Bryant opened some eyes. On the very first play, Williams received the ball on the left baseline, made a move toward the basket, and flushed it home. The play was a harbinger of things to come in the game – he finished with then-career highs of 16 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals – and it showcased his immense potential.
The following season illustrated Williams’ maturation, so much so that Herenda nearly doubled his minutes on the floor. The power forward’s impact during FDU’s magical NEC tournament run may have been understated alongside stars Darnell Edge, Mike Holloway and Jahlil Jenkins. But it surely wasn’t forgotten by the program bearer.
“Back then Elyjah just was a steady force on that team,” Herenda said of Williams’ impact as a role player. “He always did what was necessary of him.”
After procuring two critical offensive rebounds in the final minute of tight tournament semifinal victory over Robert Morris, Williams was fully entrenched as the Knights’ 3-man alongside Holloway and Kaleb Bishop in the finals. His insertion into the lineup to replace Xzavier Malone-Key, who missed the entire NEC tournament due to injury, created significant matchup problems for the number-1 seeded, perimeter centric Saint Francis U Red Flash.
“I think Elyjah Williams was the reason they were able to come in and knock us off, because of his physicality, and because of his versatility, and because of his skill set,” Saint Francis head coach Rob Krimmel said when reliving that painful loss in Loretto. “It was a better matchup for us with Malone-Key, and Malone-Key was a good player.”
In the nationally televised game, Williams played nearly 40 minutes, then a career high, and was terrific on both ends of the floor. The then-sophomore finished with 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting to go along with 3 rebounds and 4 blocks. The Knights were practically perfect offensively and won the championship game going away, 85-76. The Knights were bound for Dayton for the second time in four seasons.
But afterwards, Williams’ actions caught Krimmel’s eye once again. As the FDU players and coaches celebrated their triumph on the DeGol Arena floor, Williams ran past Krimmel and into the back hallway toward the Red Flash locker room. The Saint Francis coach initially thought something was amiss, so he quickly worked his way toward the hallway.
“I walk back and peek my head back and all (Williams) did was respect and congratulate Jamal (King) and Keith (Braxton),” Krimmel said of the moment. “Here his team is celebrating and he’s back in our hallway congratulating (SFU players). That’s a credit to the type of kid he is.”
Now merely games away from closing out his fourth season, the burly Williams has emerged as a top 10 player within the league. His impact on both ends is unmistakable, as he currently sits among the NEC leaders in a variety of categories such as effective field goal percentage (60.8%, 5th), blocks per game (1.4, 4th), scoring (14.2 ppg, 5th) and rebounding (7.5 rpg, 6th). And that production is there despite being quarantined due to COVID contract tracing protocols for more than 20 days during this season.
Among the impressive numbers, Williams’ versatility at his size is truly unique and a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. “He just has a real physical presence,” Herenda said. “When he goes downhill with the ball, especially in the open court he’s had highlights.” The coach also compared Williams’s transition game to watching a bruising running back barrel his way toward the goal line.
While the on-the-court production is nice, Herenda and Williams will forever cherish their close relationship – there are frequent one-on-one discussions far beyond the scope of basketball – both in the good times and the bad. The thing that Herenda most admires about his senior forward is his kindness and consistency, day in and day out.
“After every single game he comes and grabs me and gives me a pound or a hug,” Herenda said of Williams. “And we’ve lost some really hard games, we’ve won some big ones, but he’s very consistent in that. He’s a great sport.”
Williams’ future as a Knight is uncertain – he and Jenkins will discuss their future with Herenda at the conclusion of this season – but his impact is immense, whether there’s just two or 32 games left. After signing with the Knights late in the recruiting season, Williams has entrenched himself as an easy to root for champion and all-time great in FDU lore.