EMMITSBURG — Before Mount St. Mary’s began its Northeast Conference schedule, Dan Engelstad felt the need to raise the bar for Malik Jefferson’s level of play.
“There was a little bit of a spurt early in the season where he wasn’t playing up to his capability,” the Mountaineers coach said Saturday at Knott Arena. “We think he’s the best big man in the league, so we challenged him to be that every night.”
Jefferson had just turned in a performance that went far in fulfilling the potential Engelstad sees, collecting 17 points, 11 rebounds and three assists in the Mount’s 79-52 victory over Central Connecticut State.
Over the past four games — all NEC contests — the 6-foot-9 sophomore has averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. Before conference play began on Jan. 2, Jefferson targeted rebounding as a big area of improvement.
“I don’t think I’ve been attacking the glass like I should before conference play, and I went in with the mindset that you have to make your own shots,” Jefferson said. “It might go five minutes where I might not touch the ball. I realize that’s how I’m going to get most of my points: offensive rebounds.”
But Jefferson did see the ball early and often in the paint during Saturday’s game, and even if he drew double teams, he still looked to attack offensively. A left-handed baby hook shot started falling early, and he kept going to it.
“Once you see that first one go in, it always makes you feel better about the next one,” Jefferson said. “[Assistant] coach Matt [Miller] always tells me, ‘Whatever you do, do it strong.’”
Through the first 13 minutes of Saturday’s game, Jefferson and fellow big man Nana Opoku each went 4-for-4 from the field as the Mount bolted out to a 29-15 advantage. In addition to his scoring and rebounding, Jefferson also looked for Opoku when he received the ball in the high post. Twice, he found the 6-9 Opoku underneath the rim for easy dunks.
“We do a lot of drills at practice, working on passing to each other,” Jefferson said. “These last couple of games, we’ve been doing a better job of finding each other. I know if the double is coming to me that he’s going to be open, and I'm going to try to get it to him every time.”
Opoku finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and six blocks. With he and Jefferson leading the way, the Mount (7-11 overall, 3-2 NEC) accomplished a goal it has struggled to meet all season: avoiding a slow start.
“It was the first time we’ve hit someone in the mouth early, and that’s what we have to do,” Engelstad said.
The Blue Devils (1-18, 0-6) couldn’t cut their deficit under 12 points the rest of the game as the Mount then started to pad its lead from beyond the arc through Jalen Gibbs and Vado Morse. Gibbs went 5-for-10 on 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 20 points, and Morse hit three 3s.
Point guard Damian Chong Qui controlled an offense that committed just nine turnovers, finishing with 13 points, five rebounds and six assists for a Mount team that posted a single-game high of 20 assists and won back-to-back games for the first time since the tail end of November.
“The ball was moving,” Engelstad said. “We weren’t unselfish; we shared the ball. It helps getting Malik going early because then they have to double, and they have to be in different closeout situations. We drove some closeouts and made some nice passes.”
Knowing his team will host St. Francis-Brooklyn on Monday, Engelstad continued to challenge Jefferson, who was seated next to him at Saturday’s postgame press conference. Engelstad pointed out that Jefferson’s twin brother, Jalen, had grabbed only two fewer rebounds despite playing almost 17 fewer minutes than Malik.
“He’s definitely risen to the occasion, and we’re excited about the consistent efforts he’s putting forth night in and night out now,” Engelstad said. “That being said, we need more from him on Monday.”