Elite Coaching, Defense and Point Guard Play Bind Mount Championship Teams 13 Years Apart

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.

PPGAPGRPGKenPom ORtg% PossAssist RateTO RateSTL RateeFG%
Goode, ‘0814.55.53.2102.427.435%21%3.1%46.7%
Chong Qui ‘2115.15.54.2104.226.534%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 SeasonKenPom DRtg (pts/100 poss)eFG%DReb RateBlock Rate3PA/FGA
2007-0895.1 (2nd NEC)44.6%71.4%12.4%30.7%
2020-2194.8 (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.

The Great Mount Comeback, Damian Chong Qui and My #NECMBB All-Defensive Team

Photo by David Sinclair

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

DSPics.net Photo

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, Mount St. 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.

Highlighting the Terrific NEC Coaching of the 2020-21 Season

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.

DSPics.com Photo

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.

FDU’s Elyjah Williams’ Impact is Undeniable, Both On and Off the Court

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.

Through Twists and Turns, LIU’s Eral Penn Finds Joy in the Journey

Eral Penn knew something was terribly wrong. As he drove back to Long Island University from Maryland after a preseason break, Penn’s entire arm was swollen and throbbing. He had banged his forearm the wrong way three days earlier in practice, was treated with anti-inflammatories upon his return home at a Baltimore hospital, and yet the arm wasn’t responding to treatment. In fact, the malady worsened as he traversed north on the New Jersey Turnpike, to the point where the 6-foot-7 junior needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. 

“When he got back (to Brooklyn), the size of his elbow was the size of our thigh,” Jim Mack, an assistant coach at LIU, recalled of the incident. 

With much of the LIU basketball staff there for support, the NYU doctors treated Penn’s mystery ailment as if it was a staph or MRSA infection. Within 48 hours however, it was clear the initial treatment was ineffective. Emergency, exploratory surgery to scope out the source of Penn’s swelling and pain was the next crucial step.

“We at first didn’t realize the extent of it, but as they kept going in (to operate), we realized how serious it was getting,” Mack said. 

Penn’s infected arm ended up enduring four surgeries over the course of a few weeks. Doctors successfully removed the entire infection on the final scope, one that literally scraped out debris next to Penn’s ulna and radius bones, but the damage had been done. Penn was going to miss the 2019-20 season due to injury.

Penn’s arm issue improbably had begun four years earlier when he inadvertently struck an opponent’s mouth on a block attempt in a high school game. A tooth from the player wound up missing and Penn was left with a gash in his forearm.

“I went to the doctor and they did an x-ray,” Penn said. “His tooth wasn’t inside of me, so they patched (my arm) up and gave me antibiotics.”

In retrospect, the doctors likely missed an opportunity to treat the injury as a bite and administer a tetanus shot. But everything seemed fine moving forward, even if Penn’s arm would bother him every so often after hard contact at the site of the original injury. One doctor suggested during Penn’s freshman year at LIU that he was suffering from arthritis, while another prescribed more antibiotics. Only after four years of his body fighting a somewhat silent infection did his arm flare up to that dangerous level during the 2019 preseason.

Now hospital bound from several surgical procedures, Penn was fortunate to have full use of his arm and a continuing basketball career to look forward to. Sure, he was initially devastated and struggled with some down moments in the midst of his hospital stay, anybody in that situation would, but the LIU staff and teammates were vital in keeping the junior’s hopes up. 

“They showed me a lot during that process; they were there with me every step of the way through all my surgeries,” Penn said of the support his coaches gave him during the scary ordeal.

Three months later in January, quite remarkably, Penn returned to the basketball court to resume his individual 7 AM workouts with Raiquan Clark, the team’s leading scorer, and Coach Mack. A few weeks later, he was medically cleared to fully practice with his teammates.


Before Penn emerged as a household name among NEC circles this season, the raw yet athletically gifted kid was returning to the United States to play basketball as an unknown high school junior.

After living in the British Virgin Islands with their father for three years, Penn and his twin brother Vedal moved to Baltimore with their mother. The Penn brothers had a desire to hoop at a quality high school, yet they didn’t have the slightest clue where to look. That’s when an impromptu conversation with a security guard at the Maryland State Department of Education changed Eral’s life for the better.

“When I walked in the door, he was like ‘oh, do you play basketball and stuff,’” Penn, who was there to submit his transcript, said of the chance encounter. “Just like small talk and he told us how St. Frances Academy was a good basketball school.”

Heeding the security guard’s advice, Penn and his brother enrolled at the academy and showed up on the first day of basketball tryouts. St. Frances head coach Nick Myles vividly remembers his first impression of the Penn kids. 

“I’ll never forget him and his brother in the corner just nervous, shooting baskets at tryouts,” Myles said. “At my level, normally you don’t get (new) guys that make the team at tryouts. We’re normally a little bit too good for that, but Eral was just so energetic and he was a difference maker from day one.”

Both brothers made the team – Penn called that tryout the toughest practice he’s ever been through – even though St. Frances was routinely among the nation’s elite in the high school circuit. The program was a breeding ground for Division I talent, but that didn’t matter for Penn, who had played against inferior competition in the Virgin Islands. His energy, work ethic and athleticism made its way into Myles’ coveted rotation right from the beginning. The forward stuck and soon was starting games late in the season as a rebounding, rim-protecting role player. 

A year later, Penn emerged as a senior star, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game for a very young, albeit talented St. Frances team. The squad was rife with inexperience however, leading to a down season. It certainly wasn’t Penn’s fault, yet with St. Frances out of the national spotlight, Division I coaches weren’t around as much to recruit the tenacious, high-motored forward. 

There were offers from Siena and Canisius early in Penn’s senior season, although those eventually fell through. An unofficial visit to Mount St. Mary’s didn’t lead to anything. By the end of the season, Penn was left with nothing but Division 2 and 3 offers to ponder, leaving him to wonder if enrolling in a preparatory school was the best way forward to keep his Division I dream alive.

Luckily for Penn, LIU hired Derek Kellogg as its fourteenth head coach in program history on April 17, thereby paving the way for Myles to sell his star power forward’s credentials. The coach had a relationship with Kellogg dating back to when another St. Frances player, Terrell Vinson, became a quality four-year contributor for UMass, Kellogg’s prior coaching stop.

“When (Kellogg) got the LIU job, I just thought Eral was the perfect fit. I just like the freedom that Coach Kellogg gives his players,” Myles said of the offensive friendly, up-tempo scheme Kellogg regularly implements. “I’m a big fan of his system and the way he plays.”

In his recruiting pitch, Myles didn’t let Kellogg forget about the time he passed on one of his former players. The Baltimore product, DaQuan Bracey, eventually landed at Louisiana Tech and later became a Conference USA all-conference first team recipient as a 5-foot-11 senior. With a few scholarships to fill upon his arrival at LIU, Kellogg wasn’t going to make the same mistake of passing on a Myles recommendation. 

“It was one of those things where everything just kind of fell into place and he’s been a workhorse since he’s got here,” Kellogg said of Penn, who’s mother was originally from Brooklyn. 

Since arriving on campus, Penn has been the model student-athlete for Kellogg from day one. “The kid’s work ethic and desire to win, his character, all of those things are what really makes him special,” the long-time coach confirmed. “He’s not chasing the points or the glory or any of that stuff, he just wants to do things the right way.”

That much was evident in Penn’s underclassman seasons at LIU. As primarily a reserve big off the bench, Penn made the most of his opportunities, converting 65 percent of his 2-point attempts while swatting away 63 shots and turning the ball over just 28 times in 59 games. It was his performance in the 58th game of his collegiate career, however, that caught the league’s attention and best exemplified Penn’s linear progression as a player.

In that NEC quarterfinals matchup at Sacred Heart, the six-seeded LIU squad came into the Pitt Center winning three straight, yet were considered slight underdogs to a Pioneers team that surprised the NEC with a 11-7 regular season finish. 

Enter Penn who, like Sacred Heart that season, seemingly came out of nowhere to capture the show in LIU’s biggest moment. “I felt with that game, it was the last game (of the season) so I had nothing else to lose,” he said of his career performance that evening. 

He surely took advantage of the loser-go-home mentality, registering 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and, most surprisingly, draining 3 of 5 from behind the arc in a career high (at the time) 31 minutes. In his previous 57 games at LIU, Penn had attempted just seven 3-point tries, making two. That evening, Penn improbably outproduced the entire Pioneers team from deep, nine points to six.

LIU won the game going away, 71-62, advancing to the tournament semifinals and giving Penn the confidence to realize that he possessed the necessary talent to go from a key role player to an all-conference contributor.


Despite missing the 2019-20 season due to the arm injury, Penn hasn’t missed a beat upon his return to the hardwood this season. He’s officially progressed from bench piece to role guy to NEC superstar.

Within league play for the 2020-21 season, Penn sits inside the top eight among NEC players in a myriad of statistics such as effective field goal percentage (57.9%, 7th), offensive rebounding rate (12.1%, 4th), defensive rebounding rate (24.1%, 3rd), block rate (5.7%, 3rd), free throw rate (61.6% FTA/FGA, 1st) and steal rate (3.4%, 2nd). The last metric illustrates Penn’s superb maturation, as his defensive impact as a NEC five-man has terrified opponents both around the rim and out on the perimeter.

His uncanny ability to block shots and blitz hedges while stripping guards of the basketball is unique, to say the least. Penn’s accumulated 31 steals in his third year after collecting just 20 thefts in his first two seasons combined. And, by the way, he’s rejected 28 shot attempts this season as well.

“That’s why he’s so damn tired right now,” Kellogg joked when asked about Penn’s seemingly limitless defensive energy and impact on the floor. “Those guys are kind of few and far between, because I think everybody puts a premise on scoring points in this day and age and I think he worries about all the other things. And then all of the sudden you get 18 to 20 (points) on putbacks and lop dunks and open 3s and just running the floor and playing hard.”

As someone who’s also coached Penn throughout his LIU career, Mack credits not only the redshirt senior’s insatiable appetite to improve his game, but also his hyper competitiveness with his teammates in practice. “He just progressed and I think one of the biggest things was him and Raiquan would compete every morning,” Mack said of those legendary individual workouts between two close friends. “Those two would go at each other. They wouldn’t hold anything back.”

With two regular season games remaining and LIU sitting at 9-7 in the NEC standings, Penn has undoubtedly emerged as an elite player in spite of not having a ton of offense being run through him. The analytics website BartTorvik.com currently pegs Penn as the second most valuable player in the conference when using its PORPAGATU! (Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game at That Usage) metric. 

Forget about the statistics, the jaw dropping athleticism and even the tenacious work ethic that Penn possesses as a LIU Shark, though. If you talk to opposing NEC coaches, what most impresses them about the versatile power forward is the positive energy he harbors in uniform, whether it’s on the floor as a playmaker or on the bench as a cheerleader. Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo was taken aback by Penn’s presence when his Warriors faced the Sharks over a two-day stretch in early February.

“When you’re playing against him in person he just has this energy and aura about him,” Gallo said when asked about his immediate impressions of Penn. “Every time they shot a three he’s like screaming and yelling and cheering on his teammates on the court. He’s one of those guys you play against and you’re like ‘I wish this guy was on my team.’ I literally wanted to give the guy a hug.”

Rob Krimmel went one further than Gallo after Penn carved up his Red Flash in their second contest versus LIU to the tune of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals. He actually embraced the big man after their post game chat. “You can look at the numbers and say, ‘hey this kid is good,’ but when you get out there and see how hard he plays and how much he pulls for his teammates, that makes it even more special,” Krimmel said.

Being a great teammate has always come natural to Penn. As someone who first grew up in Brooklyn and then lived in the Virgin Islands, hard work and humility were ingrained into his upbringing. The grounded Penn isn’t hesitant about crediting both of his parents when asked about his on-the-court demeanor. 

Of his father, Penn said: “My dad was a huge influence – when I actually moved with him in the (Virgin) Islands, he actually taught me and my brother how to be men. He had us wake up at 5 o’clock every morning and just to have that mindset to get up and go to work, even if I was just going to school.”

The student-athlete then heaped praise on his mother, crediting her hard work and limitless dedication for giving him and his brother the opportunity to play basketball at a private school in the United States such as St. Frances. 

The investment into Penn’s craft and character has paid dividends and caught everyone’s eye, no matter if you’re with him or against him on the court. 

Mack wholeheartedly agrees. “What he is as a human being – loyal, respectful, hardworking, like he’s everything – and I said this to my wife the other day, if my son grows up to be a quarter of the person Eral Penn is, we’ve done a good job. I’m not saying that loosely… that’s the type of kid that he is.”

Given Penn’s journey from Brooklyn to the Virgin Islands to Baltimore and back to Brooklyn, it’s easy to root the 6-foot-7 forward. And there’s plenty of story yet to be written. Somehow, the best is yet to come.