EMMITSBURG — Cruising in for an uncontested layup or dunk early in the second half Saturday, Elijah Long absorbed a hard foul and collided with the stanchion at the base of the basket.
The sophomore guard and leading scorer for Mount St. Mary’s reacted emotionally and had to be restrained by teammates to avoid being assessed a technical foul.
That would happen a few minutes later when, after a video review of the play by the officials, coach Jamion Christian learned that no flagrant foul was forthcoming for the play against Long.
Christian snapped emotionally himself and picked up an extraordinarily rare technical. He believed it was only his third technical in five seasons as the head coach of the Mount.
With 15 minutes, 57 seconds remaining in the second half, the dual emotional outbursts from Long and Christian seemed to galvanize and spark the rest of the team.
Mount St. Mary’s scored 24 of the next 26 points to put away last place St. Francis Brooklyn and claim its first Northeast Conference regular-season championship in men’s basketball since 1995-96 with a 77-62 victory at Knott Arena.
“To be a regular-season champion, that means you have played well for two straight months. That’s amazing. That’s very hard to do,” Christian said. “I have been [coaching college basketball] for a long time. I have only been involved with two teams that were good enough to be the number one team going into a [conference] tournament.”
The Mountaineers (16-15, 14-4 NEC) are the No. 1 seed and will have home-court advantage for as long as they last in the NEC tournament, beginning with Wednesday’s 7 p.m. quarterfinal against No. 8 seed Sacred Heart (13-18, 8-10 NEC), which has lost three in a row.
Mount St. Mary’s already owns two double-digit wins over Sacred Heart this season, though both games were within 10 points down the stretch.
“What we set our goal on is far from over,” junior forward Chris Wray said. “We have worked for this since the season ended last year. We have been going and we set our goal to be here. It’s not that we are downplaying what we have done so far. We are grateful for it. But we want more.”
On his unusual emotional outburst the drew the technical, Christian said, “I just want these guys to know that I am there for them. Whatever we need to do, we can do, however form that takes. But I am just not going to let guys come in and foul our guys like that.”
For his role in the pivotal moment, Long, who has drawn five technicals this season, said, “I am not saying I am [Russell] Westbrook. I am nowhere close to Westbrook. But, emotionally wise, Coach Christian knows this, I have that fire and desire. Coach Christian does a great job to try and compose that anger but not let it go out of hand.”
A few seasons ago, Long, who finished with a team-high 22 points, might have been even more unrestrained emotionally and gotten that technical.
But Saturday’s reaction, though still strong, “was a good step for me,” Long said.
“I reset. Obviously, I had to let the refs know that wasn’t just a regular foul and just move on from that.”
Up until that point, Mount St. Mary’s hadn’t played with much emotion or purpose, allowing St. Francis Brooklyn, which had lost 15 in a row coming in, to not only hang around but believe it could win.
The Terriers (4-27, 2-16 NEC) scored 17 straight points at one point and led by 10 points with 5:04 to play in the first half.
Freshman guard Gianni Ford, who averaged just four points per game, caught fire for St. Francis and finished the first half with 20 points, seven more than his career high.
But then he and the Terriers cooled off big time in the second half. The team made eight of 30 shots from the field after halftime, and Ford finished with 23 points.
Technically, Mount St. Mary’s did not have to win Saturday to be the No. 1 seed, thanks to St. Francis’ (Pennsylvania) 70-64 win over defending NEC champion Fairleigh Dickinson earlier in the day, tilting all tiebreakers in the Mountaineers’ favor.
But their big second-half run did the job anyway. Freshman Miles Wilson scored 10 of the Mount’s 24 points during the run and finished with 17 points.
“We are really excited about this [conference championship],” Christian said. “We are going to enjoy it until about midnight, and then we are going to reset and put all of our energy into Sacred Heart. We’ve got bigger goals ahead of us.”
Notes: The NEC regular-season championship was just the second in school history for the Mount following the 1995-96 team … With the victory, the Mountaineers secured a berth in the National Invitation Tournament should they not win the NEC tournament and advance to the NCAA tourney … The No. 1 seed in the NEC tournament is 33-0 all-time against the No. 8 seed … The Walkersville High School football team was honored at halftime for winning its state title in November.