He was guarding Michael Carey because he might be the top option for Wagner to give the ball to with the game on the line, but Chris Wray was smart enough to know that with the clock rapidly approaching zero, the chances of him getting the ball in time were virtually nil.
So Wray left Carey completely, sped to the other side of the court, and arrived like your neighborhood superhero, just in time to save the day, swatting Corey Henson’s shot away at the buzzer, giving Mount St. Mary’s a 57-56 victory Saturday afternoon at Knott Arena.
“We had said we were going to switch, but I saw on the clock what the time was and I felt that by the time he shot it, there wouldn’t be any time left. It was a perfect time to contest it,” Wray said.
Two days earlier, Wray had donned his cape as well, beating LIU Brooklyn by going the length of the court and scoring just before the horn sounded. (He had done the same in what, seemingly forever, was The Mount’s only victory, albeit an impressive one over George Mason.)
But Wray’s heroics also illustrate the small margins between success and failure, especially in the NEC, where the gap between top and bottom is not as large as elsewhere. Consider that two plays (both Wray’s) separate Mount St. Mary’s from an 0-2 NEC start complemented by a 2-13 overall record and Jamion Christian having to answer questions about his team’s future. Now, The Mount is 2-0 and atop the NEC standings, instilled as one of the favorites to win it all.
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) December 31, 2016
— Northeast Conference (@NECsports) December 29, 2016
“I think people always worry when you play a tough schedule that you won’t be able to get confidence back,” Mount coach Jamion Christian said. “I don’t believe in that. I think our environment that we create here is all about helping them establish confidence and understand how important they are. When you see us play these close games, you see a lot of confidence out there. You see a lot of guys who believe they can make the right play, make the right decisions. I think the schedule definitely helped us.”
The real truth, of course, is that they might have been anyway. Wagner – the conference favorite – went back to New York City with three teams above them in the standings and with more doubts about what the next couple of months hold for them.
It’s important to remember, though, that – at this early juncture, at least – one day does not a season make. In a one-bid league like the NEC, home-court advantage is important, but playing your best basketball at the end is more so. This is not meant to downplay The Mount, who really needed those two victories, but there is a long way to go. The ride should be fun.
What else did we learn as 2016 came to a close in Maryland?:
- The best teams in NEC also might not play the prettiest
Although both coaches had some issues with the officiating, there were more fouls than points for the first seven minutes (with Wagner holding a 4-0 lead). By halftime, the Seahawks only had 16 points, but what was also interesting was the pace or lack thereof. For all Mount’s “Mayhem”, they don’t really push tempo and Wagner takes the longest with the ball (20.6 seconds per possession) of anyone in the country, ranking a plodding 345th in adjusted tempo overall. This gmae finished at only 61 possessions.
“They (Wagner) just play a distinctive style with their physicality,” Christian said. “I could tell in shootaround that we were locked in so I wasn’t surprised with how we played in the first half. A tremendous job finding a way to win in the end against a very good team.”
Which isn’t to denigrate good defense, of course. Like Robert Morris, The Mount doesn’t necessarily play quickly, but does force plenty of turnovers (Wagner had just 13, but it was 21.3% in a slow game). Wagner hurts themselves by fouling plenty (321st currently), but is very athletic and should be able to control the glass against everyone except perhaps LIU Brooklyn.
“Especially in conference play, when you dig yourself too deep a hole, it’s tough to dig your way out of it,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “I give my guys credit, we played hard, but I just thought the way the game started set the tone. Us losing has nothing to do with the officials, but I thought it kind of threw both teams off rhythm. And we didn’t make enough free throws.”
The Mount, despite some gruesome stats coming in (Wagner was 6th nationally in offensive rebounding, Mount was 345th defensively), the Seahawks (5-7, 1-1) got “only” 13 offensive boards for 36.1%, below their average.
2) Lots of options, with or without Saunders
Wagner said after the game that Romone Saunders, who has played in only one game (their upset of UConn) this season, is not officially out for the season with a foot injury, contrary to a report on television last week. However, his foot was still in a boot Saturday, and it remains to be seen when or if he will return at all.
Mason still has plenty of options, maybe too many, if that’s possible? It was Blake Francis who nearly stole the game for the Seahawks, scoring six straight points on a pair of three-pointers in the final minute to give Wagner a brief 56-55 lead (its first since early in the game) before Elijah Long made both free throws at the other end for the eventual winners with 23 seconds left.
Francis has made nine of his last 12 three-pointers, but battles the likes of Henson, Michael Carey, Corey Henson, and JoJo Cooper for playing time. Neither Mike Aaman nor Greg Senat started, but played some big minutes in the middle, spelling A.J. Sumbry, with Shack Scott also an option. It means picking a crunch time lineup may be difficult, but also means plenty of depth for Mason.
“We play a bunch of different guys,” Mason said. “We used our non-conference to kind of figure our what our rotation was going to be and learn a lot of different guys’ strengths and weaknesses. We have good depth and I feel comfortable in all our guys no matter what the situation. We showed a lot of toughness, and that type of team I could coach every day of the week.”
3) Junior Robinson with the ball
Christian has toyed with Elijah Long bring the ball up, and his assist rate is higher than Junior Robinson’s for the season. But it wasn’t helping The Mount’s offense, so Robinson has been back at the point for now. It should be noted, that The Mount’s first-half lead was accumulated mostly with Long on the bench with foul trouble.
In an offense that has struggled to score this season, Long is second in the NEC (behind Sacred Heart’s Quincy McKnight) in possessions used, but the real issue seems to be outside of guards Robinson, Long, and Miles Wilson, there aren’t many offensive threats. The dilemma for Christian is how effective players like Wray and Mawdo Sallah are defensively. It might be up to Wray, who is shooting 53.5% from the field (but just 39% from the free throw line, including 2-8 Saturday) to shoulder more of the offensive load.
“We’re working toward our end goal, to win the NEC,” Robinson said. “We thought we could have won all those games, but that wasn’t our main goal, which is to win the league. And right now, we put ourselves in good position.”
Bonus) LED technicals
Mount St. Mary’s was assessed an administrative technical before the game because the LED lights on the backboard that indicate that time has expired were not working, and they are now mandatory in Division I basketball. New rules also indicate that administrative technicals are only one shot, and Henson (an 80% shooter) missed, which in the end, was probably a good thing for points of discussion, seeing as The Mount ended up winning the game by a single point.
Because you asked, here are the NCAA rules on LED lights. I think they're too close to backboard here, but will find out later. pic.twitter.com/Au1c9QXG7N
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) December 31, 2016
Indeed, both lights surrounding backboards not working as staff works to rectify problem: pic.twitter.com/Ih4d8OB2nU
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) December 31, 2016