SMITHFIELD, R.I. – If Mount St. Mary’s seems like a program full of positive energy these days, there are a lot of sources for it. The simplest part of it is the reality that this is a young team, including their head coach, one of the youngest in Division I. While the team tries to grow, keeping those positive vibes will be important, especially as Northeast Conference play rolls on with its two-day turnaround on most weekends.
After Mount St. Mary’s lost a tough game at Bryant on Thursday – the latest dramatic game between these two in Smithfield – naturally the team and the staff knew it was there for the taking. But Jamion Christian, the alum who heads up the program, had lots of energy and can only beam with pride about his team right now.
“I just take so many positives,” Christian said. “We’ve got young guards out there, and they just battled back.”
Christian’s third season at the helm has been an uphill battle in a different sense than his first two. This team is much younger, with just one graduate student and one true senior. On the other hand, it’s constructed more of the kind of players to fit the Mount Mayhem style that the staff wants, and one of the bright sides has been that this team is pressing and turning teams over. They’re also a very improved defensive team overall, and that’s helped them to a 6-5 mark in Northeast Conference play despite the youth.
Thursday night’s game might be a microcosm of the season thus far. They showed plenty of promise, even leading by five at one point, but they also trailed by 11 around the midway point of the second half. Even with that, they battled back to within a possession, and had a chance to tie it at the end of regulation. They got the shot they wanted – getting it in the post to Gregory Graves, who had a good night for them (14 points, five rebounds), and he got a good shot that went in and out. While Bryant isn’t a team that turns opponents over, the Mountaineers gave the ball away just five times on the night, helping to keep them in it despite shooting just 25 percent in the second half.
Mount St. Mary’s didn’t win consecutive games until a four-game winning streak last month. Since then, they have traded wins and losses in the last five games, all something you’ll sometimes see from a young team. They have shown their potential in games like wins at Bucknell and at home against NEC leader St. Francis Brooklyn. They have lost three games in overtime, so they have been right there a lot of the way.
The staff sees this young team continue to battle and sees all positives. It certainly emanates from the coaching staff, and maybe that’s in part because they can afford to take a long view. Whether it’s how this team has come along, the potential, or how Mount Mayhem is very much alive now, there’s nothing but positive energy coming from them. And there’s a feeling that a turning point isn’t far away.
Christian talked about how this team is constructed better than his first two teams, and it’s clear in watching them. They have speed with diminutive point guard Junior Robinson, a heady guard in Byron Ashe (who had four assists without a turnover on Thursday) and a versatile guard in Khalid Nwandu who is baby-faced and slight but has loads of upside. They also have physical post players inside like Graves and Kristijan Krajina, along with Butler transfer Andrew Smeathers (who has been out for a few weeks with a leg injury but could return soon) and junior Taylor Danaher.
With Smeathers out, Graves is the key up front, as he can play inside and out as he showed on Thursday night.
“We’ve been really small the first two years, often playing four guards,” Christian reflected. “I love playing big, though, and we recruited to do that. Greg being able to play at the four for us is huge defensively. His ability to rebound the ball, both offensively and defensively, and his agility is really special. We’re trying to play bigger and trying to play faster, trying to do everything a little bit better.”
Even in defeat on Thursday, there was a lot of positive energy with this team. The feeling is that the close games will eventually go their way, but they’re not ready to win a game like this yet. They bounced back to beat Central Connecticut State on Saturday, improving to 7-5 in the conference and winning on the road for the fourth time.
Mount St. Mary’s has made runs late in the season each of the last two seasons, and this team seems poised to do the same. They defend very well for a young team and have won on the road, which is also something young teams don’t always do much of. The NEC is wide open, and what this team has done thus far plus the growth they clearly have in front of them mean they could make another run next month and add even more to the positive energy around and inside the program.