EMMITSBURG — On the Mount St. Mary’s basketball roster, sophomore guard Damian Chong Qui is listed at 5 feet, 8 inches tall.
“Yeah, with shoes on and triple socks,” coach Dan Engelstad said.
But Chong Qui, who plays with a fighter’s spirit, is not shy about challenging much taller players around the basket, and he does it with remarkable success.
“Everyone on the team tells me, ‘You work the hardest. Show it,’” Chong Qui said. “A big part of basketball is being confident, and every one from my coaches to [teammates] make sure I have confidence. Just them being in my ear, telling me I can do it, it makes me feel like I can do anything.”
On Tuesday night at Knott Arena, Chong Qui took on the trees around the basketball and finished with a career-high 18 points, including an acrobatic layup over a 6-foot-8 forward with 12 seconds left to lift Mount St. Mary’s to a 64-61 victory over Utah Valley.
It was exactly the kind of back-and-forth slugfest (seven lead changes, eight ties) against a quality opponent that Chong Qui loves, with the Mountaineers (2-5) fighting to keep their deficit under double digits for most of the second half.
“Those are the best ones,” said Chong Qui, whose previous best scoring night was a 17-point performance in January against Northeast Conference rival Bryant. He scored eight of the Mount’s final 12 points over the final 4 minutes, 29 seconds to hit the mark.
“I feel like we grew up today,” he added. “All the games we lost last year that were close at the end and we made a couple of bad plays. We never quit. We made a couple of bad ones tonight. We turned the ball over with 30 seconds left, and there was nobody in the huddle with their head down.”
Junior guard Jalen Gibbs scored 15 points, including a free throw with six seconds left that caused Utah Valley to force up a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Junior forward Omar Habwe produced nine rebounds off the bench and blocked a shot with just over a minute to play. And sophomore guard Nana Opoku came up with a steal in the final minute with the Mount protecting a one-point lead.
“It was a direct reflection of [Monday’s] practice,” Engelstad said. “It was the best practice we’ve had since I’ve been here in two years. It was the loudest. It was the most locked in. And I just hope that our group can see that there’s going to be results when they work that hard.”
The result Tuesday was the Mount’s best non-conference victory in more than two seasons. Utah Valley (4-4) played ninth-ranked Kentucky to within 10 points (82-74) on its home floor on Nov. 18.
The Wolverines, who play in the Western Athletic Conference, also have a double-digit win over Alabama-Birmingham this season, right before UAB beat Mount St. Mary’s 58-51 on Nov. 20.
The Mountaineers were playing without their leading scorer from last season, sophomore guard Vado Morse, who suffered a knee contusion in the loss to UAB and hasn’t played since. Engelstad said Morse is close to returning.
When asked how much he felt his team grew Tuesday, Engelstad said, “We’ll see our response. Now we have to deal with winning a game. Are we going to keep the same mindset? Or are we going to think we’ve arrived?
“If we do [the latter], we are going to have a problem, because we have to face a team [Howard] on Saturday [on the road] that is looking for its first win. Every Division I team is good. Every Division I team has scholarship players. For us to come back to practice with that same locked-in mentality, then we have taken a step.”