Yeah, if anyone could bottle what Mount St. Mary’s had working at the Northeast Conference tournament and sell it to basketball coaches, they’d be rich.
Head coach Dan Engelstad’s Mountaineers turned their season around, playing with the joy, love, brio and all the clichés that everyone around the game recognizes and admires. The result was an NEC title and the league’s trip to the NCAA Tournament this week in Indianapolis to meet Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Texas Southern in a First Four game March 18.
The trouble with quick fixes out of a bottle, though, is you probably needed all the right ingredients on hand first. Your results may vary, and batteries not included. Engelstad, in his third year as head coach at the Mount, felt he already had the goods coming into the season. He thought the Mount’s before and after photos looked pretty much the same.
“I saw it early, I saw it in November that we were about to get rolling,” Engelstad said. “We have depth. We have athleticism. We don’t have to play slowly anymore. That didn’t change.”
What did change for the Mount and for all college teams was the COVID-caused instability of the 2020-21 season. Starting 1-3, the Mountaineers had a tough loss to a quality Navy team and were tied with Maryland in the last 10 minutes of a Nov. 29 game before falling. Then COVID, in some shape or form, canceled or postponed five straight Mountaineer games in December.
Starting shooting guard Jalen Gibbs left the program in late December, opting out this season. Samford transfer Deandre Thomas missed time with a dislocated shoulder and fast-rising freshman Dakota LeFew broke his hand. The Mountaineers were in an 8-10 valley after an overtime loss at Fairleigh Dickenson Feb. 20, and by that time, Wagner and Bryant were running away at the top of the NEC standings.
“We kept fighting and kept grinding and our guys kept believing,” said Engelstad, a Bethesda, Md., native in his second tour of duty at the Mount.
“It has been a roller coaster this year with all the different challenges we’ve faced,” junior Damian Chong Qui said. “I think it’s a testament to the guys on our staff, our players and our work ethic. 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.”
Baltimore native Chong Qui and 6-foot-9, Potomac, Va., junior Nana Opoku powered the Mount’s ascension through tribulation to a title. Chong Qui had 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists during the 73-68 championship-game win at Bryant, with the slight, 5-foot-8, 155-pound point guard coming up huge in crunch time. Opoku, the NEC Defensive Player of the Year and tournament MVP, added 18 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots for the Mount (12-10).
“We came together, and we understood the task at hand,” Opoku said. “At the end of the season, Dan [Engelstad] would tell us every game it was do-or-die, and that was our mindset from February up to now.”
Opoku, though a redshirt, is part of a junior class that includes fellow starters Chong Qui, and forwards Mezie Offurum and Malik Jefferson. It’s a strong core of players who all return next year, and yeah, watching them interact this week together in the spotlight, there is a feel of family.
Chong Qui directs his teammates on group Zoom calls with the media to avoid awkward silence the same way he points them in the right direction on the floor. Opoku comes off as the older, wiser brother, making a point to say his Defensive Player of the Year honor is a “team” award for the Mountaineers and their best-in-the-NEC defense (62.3 points, .405 field goal percentage allowed).
Engelstad often referenced how “loose and locked in” his team was at the NEC tournament. Opoku said the team’s urgency was the difference, but Chong Qui thought experience, particularly among that core group of juniors, was also a key.
“We’ve been really locked in since Wagner [Feb. 16-17], and we really emphasized finishing plays,” Chong Qui said. “We lost a lot of games just not being able to finish plays or close out games. Mentally, we locked into another level and our preparation has been at an all-time high the last month of the season.”
Engelstad saw that component growing this season, too.
“In this COVID world, you can’t get together like before, can’t have them over to my house for dinner, can’t develop leadership like before,” said the coach, who was an assistant to Milan Brown when the Mountaineers went to the NCAA Tournament in 2008. “So, we broke down film and did basketball stuff and talked about creating a player-driven program where they take ownership. When you have players like Damian and guys that have been part of it and know what the expectation is, that’s when things start to happen.”
And things started to happen this season.
Engelstad told the team before the championship game at Bryant that they were going to win.
“I told them the reasons why,” Engelstad said. “Every team I’ve been part of that won has had fun, they were loose and having fun. But if we’re going over a scout, their eyes are locked in and they’re dialed in with it. The last thing is they genuinely love each other.”
Besides the results on the hardwood — four straight wins — there are residual reverberations in Emmitsburg, Md., these days.
“To see their work pay off, to see them holding the trophy and to see those faces and them dancing,” Engelstad said of his team. “They have a different personality to them, a different confidence and a certain swag. Nana wasn’t saying take someone’s head off before. Damian is making jokes. That’s the fun part as a coach. That’s the reward.”
Opoku, by the way, was referencing playing with intensity and making sure no one took the Mountaineers lightly moving forward, not actually decapitating someone.
The Mountaineers don’t have guys who lose their head, either. Thomas and Offurum, who transferred from George Washington, were new to the mix, but the core of the Mount had been together for a while, though this was their first postseason tournament together. It won’t be their last.
“It could be scary for a long time if these guys stay together,” Engelstad said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen [in the NCAA Tournament], but this group is not backing down from anybody.”
Hey, Coach, you got an extra bottle of that somewhere?
Photo Credit: David Sinclair/Mount Athletics