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, 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.