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.
|PPG||APG||RPG||KenPom ORtg||% Poss||Assist Rate||TO Rate||STL Rate||eFG%|
|Chong Qui ‘21||15.1||5.5||4.2||104.2||26.5||34%||18%||1.6%||44.0%|
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:
|Mount Season||KenPom DRtg (pts/100 poss)||eFG%||DReb Rate||Block Rate||3PA/FGA|
|2007-08||95.1 (2nd NEC)||44.6%||71.4%||12.4%||30.7%|
|2020-21||94.8 (1st NEC)||44.3%||75.4%||10.6%||32.8%|
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.