"Let the celebration begin in Emmitsburg. The Mount is going to the Dance."
- ESPN's Mike Tirico; March 5, 1995
The ties to the athletic teams we support are often esoteric. But sometimes they're fairly unsophisticated.
One of my roommates at college was Ryan Raffensperger, who - as he has written here (small world, huh?) - grew up in Gettysburg, a stone's throw from Emmitsburg, Md., home of Mt. St. Mary's.
I'm a sucker for the little guy, and in the mid-1990s, the Mount was certainly among the tiniest of the shrimps. And they seemed lovable, at least as far as I could ascertain in a world where the Internet was only in its infancy.
The Mount is the second-oldest Catholic college in the country (next to Georgetown), and with apologies to the fine people of Emmitsburg, is in the middle of nowhere. You add in the fact that their coach was the legendary bow-tie wearing Jim Phelan - he of the 830 wins and 49 seasons as a head coach of the Mount - and I was on board. Well, at least on board as much as you could be in those days.
Until March of 1995, the Mount was kind of a mirage, though. I had heard plenty of them, but had little proof that they actually existed. But there we were, crowded around the television in our apartment watching the real-life Phelan with a real-life bow-tie, and a kid by the name of Silas Cheung get hot in the second half as the Mount won at Rider to make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Phelan had won the Division II national title in 1962 and made it back to the title game in 1981, but - again, with all due respect - could you name the defending Division II champion? (Bellarmine, which beat BYU-Hawaii in the final).
Cheung, who had 19 points in the second half of the title game, promptly got his jersey hung on our apartment's Wall of Honor, right next to Natrone Means, who had led the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl six weeks prior (the chicks dug the the Wall of Honor when they came over, by the way).
We decry "One Shining Moment" and with good cause, but for a school like the Mount and for Cheung and Phelan, that was it. They drew Rick Pitino and Kentucky and were beaten 113-67.
Today, Cheung is a high school coach in nearby Frederick, Md., while Phelan returned to the tournament in 1999 (a 76-53 loss to Michigan St.) before finally hanging up his bow tie in 2003, although he still hangs around the school, where the court is named for him.
(By the way, it didn't end in a loss for Phelan. His final game was a win over Central Connecticut, as the Mount failed to qualify for the NEC Tournament.)
Milan Brown, a Phelan assistant, did a fine job keeping the tradition, and the Mount made a third NCAA appearance in 2008, winning the then play-in game (over Coppin St.) before getting throttled by North Carolina in the first round.
Brown took off to Holy Cross after the 2009-10 season, so the reins were handed to Robert Burke, who managed a 9-9 finish in the NEC last season before losing in the conference quarterfinals at Quinnipiac, site of the game I attended Thursday night.
I'm sad to report that despite my admiration from afar, last Saturday was my first live Mount game, and I wasn't left with a great impression of Burke or this year's squad. But five days later, the Mount showed a lot more fight, although it was hard to tell how much of it was the visitors and how much of it was an equally confounding Quinnipiac squad that has yet to find its way in conference play this season, despite a non-conference slate that included wins over Boston University and Yale, and a near-miss at the Mullins Center against UMass.
The older couple in front of me, obviously not huge college basketball buffs, couldn't figure out where the Mount is located (they settled on New York), and also couldn't believe that Quinnipiac is in the same division as UConn. "No way, they'd get killed."
After an early Ousmane Drame free throw, the Mount scored the next eight points, and led by an inspired effort by Julian Norfleet, held a 43-28 halftime advantage in a huge game for teams toward the bottom of the NEC, a conference in which not everyone makes the tourney in a few weeks.
But the Bobcats, physically stronger and bigger by a pretty wide margin, began to pressure the Mount and made a run to start the second half. Quinnipiac leads the nation in offensive rebounds and is up there in rebounding margin (partly because they can't shoot, but I digress), but the Mount tried to hold its own for much of the night. Eventually, though, they got worn down.
Quinnipiac came back to grab the lead 53-51 with seven minutes left, and the crowd at TD Bank Center finally got into the game.
But at this point there's a twist in our tale, the kind of surprise which is the reason why we do this stuff, the kind of thing that you probably won't see at the giant cathedrals above the Red Line (I guess you could, hypothetically, but bear with me).
Most teams use two kids, or sometimes students, at each end to sweep the sweat on the floor near the basket when players hit the floor or are standing around for free throws.
In this case, Quinnipiac had a boy of about 10 on one end and a very young girl - she couldn't have been more than six or seven - at the other.
On the end of a chaotic sequence, Quinnipiac's Ike Azotam had his shot blocked, a few bodies were on the floor, but no foul was called, and the action moved quickly to the other end. As everyone got up, the little girl - true to her duties - ran out to sweep the sweat off the court.
The Mount's Josh Castellanos missed a contested lay-up seconds later at the other end, Quinnipiac guard James Johnson grabbed the rebound, and quickly looked to get the ball up the court.
About that same time, as 10 Division I basketball players with a steely focus on the task at hand charged down the court, the crowd began to collectively gasp.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. Dave Johnson was fouled away from the basket, and the girl made it safely back to her perch. Ironically, the ball rolled her way as well. As she dribbled it, a referee came over, patted her on the head, and the game went on.
Dad came down to give some quick advice at the next time out.
And our hero was back at it, albeit slightly more tentative, soon after.
The Mount, to their credit, wouldn't go away, either. They came back to tie the game at 57, and after getting down again, Kelvin Parker's layup with 1.8 seconds to go in the game evened things again at 61.
The Bobcats quickly opened up a four-point lead in overtime, again the Mount battled back to get it within one, and they had a chance to tie the game in the waning seconds, but Norfleet (who scored 22 points in 42 minutes) missed a tough three-pointer at the buzzer.
As I walked out of the arena, the little girl scooted right in front of me, looking none the worse for wear after her near disaster.
If I passed Mount coach Robert Burke at the same time, I'm not sure I'd see the same body language.
Maybe there's a lesson there.
at QUINNIPIAC 69, MOUNT SAINT MARY'S 66 01/26/2012
MOUNT SAINT MARY'S 4-16 (2-7) -- J. Norfleet 10-20 0-2 22; J. Castellanos 3-11 0-0 7; K. Parker 7-13 0-1 16; K. Krajina 4-6 0-2 8; R. Barber 3-5 5-6 11; D. Thompson 0-1 0-0 0; X. Owens 0-3 0-0 0; J. Wells 1-3 0-0 2; C. Holley 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-63 5-11 66. QUINNIPIAC 11-9 (4-5) -- I. Azotam 8-17 4-6 20; J. Johnson 5-19 4-6 15; Z. Hearst 3-9 0-1 6; O. Drame 5-9 3-4 13; D. Johnson 2-5 3-5 7; G. Young 3-5 0-0 8; E. Conti 0-2 0-0 0; M. Barnett 0-1 0-0 0; N. Gause 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-68 14-22 69.
Three-point goals: MSM 5-12 (J. Castellanos 1-2; J. Norfleet 2-6; K. Parker 2-4), QUIN 3-13 (G. Young 2-2; J. Johnson 1-7; E. Conti 0-1; Z. Hearst 0-3); Rebounds: MSM 32 (R. Barber 8), QUIN 41 (O. Drame 15); Assists: MSM 14 (J. Castellanos 7), QUIN 13 (J. Johnson 4); Total Fouls -- MSM 21, QUIN 15; Fouled Out: MSM-None; QUIN-None.