Blair Garrett

It was a thriller in Knott Arena on Saturday, January 25. With just seconds on the clock, the hometown crowd roaring, and one final chance to score, the Mount men’s basketball team held off Bryant University’s last-second push to win its fourth game in a row and fifth Northeastern Conference game of the season.

Homecoming night had an electric energy in the building, with both teams storming up and down the court in the opening minutes. The Bulldogs came out swinging, knocking down shots from beyond the arc left and right, but Mount St. Mary’s was able to stabilize and keep pace with Bryant’s scorers.

Neither team was able to take firm control of the game throughout the first half, and the score held even at 40 all, until Bryant’s Juan Cardenas hit the team’s tenth 3-pointer as the halftime buzzer sounded.

The intermission was a good reset for the Mount, whose explosive jump to begin the second half gave the team its first two-score lead of the game. A few defensive stops and an alley-oop to Mount forward Nana Opoku had fans out of their seats. Mount St. Mary’s looked nearly unstoppable over the opening minutes of the second frame.

Momentum-swings in basketball are never few and far between, and the Bulldogs found their way back into the game, with the lead changing hands once again late in the game.

“They went up 6 points with six minutes to go, a little worried, but we made some big shots,” head coach Dan Engelstad said.

The Mount found its rhythm, and guard Damian Chong Qui’s scoring prowess stung the Bulldogs twice to draw Mount St. Mary’s within one score. As he has done all season, guard Vado Morse pulled out a timely 3-pointer to tie the game, with the clock ticking away.

Emotions were running high, and both teams missed critical free throws down the stretch that could have swung the game in either’s favor. With less than a minute remaining in the game, the Bulldogs needed a score to take the lead, but Opoku had other plans.

The 6-foot-9-forward stood tall, swatting away multiple shot attempts in the same drive to eventually force a shot clock violation and, more importantly, milking precious seconds off an already waning clock.

Bryant’s only chance was to take the Mount to the foul line, and Morse and Jalen Gibbs sank free throws to push the team to a four-point lead.

Just as they had all night, the Bulldogs battled back and fired off a tough-angle 3-pointer to pull within 1, with just 2.7 seconds left in the game. After an immediate foul and two more important Mount free throws, Bryant had just one final chance on an inbound play to level the score.

The entire arena held their breath as the ball soared across the court, but the Bulldogs’ hopes fell short, as Mount St. Mary’s batted the ball away and stole the game.

The game was as close as it gets, but the home team was able to gut it out and give the fans a show en route to the team’s ninth victory of the season.

“It was a back-and-forth game, and it was really entertaining,” Engelstad said. “It was a really well-played game on both sides. They made 10 threes in the first half, and we were able to limit them to just three in the second half and that was the difference.”

After a rough opening schedule against some of the country’s top collegiate teams, the Mount has found its game in the NEC, keeping up with the conference’s top teams. With the momentum from winning a few games in a row and an impressive 5-2 in-conference record, the energy in the locker room may feel different, but the team’s focus never leaves the task at hand.

“The most important practice is the next one, and the most important game is the next one,” Engelstad said. “This was an awesome environment and it was fun to play in, but it was only important because it was the one in front of us. That’s the mindset we gotta keep.”

The Mount is now in the thick of its conference games, and with this focused attitude and renewed confidence, it is an exciting time to be a Mountaineer.

Vado Morse takes it to the hoop on the counterattack.

Jalen Gibbs contests a late-game shot.

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