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Robert Morris eyes another NEC upset

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, March 3, 2017, 7:09 p.m.
Robert Morris' Kavon Stewart drives to the basket past Central Connecticut's Austin Nehls during the second half Thurday, Jan. 19, 2017, at Sewall Center in Moon.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Robert Morris' Kavon Stewart drives to the basket past Central Connecticut's Austin Nehls during the second half Thurday, Jan. 19, 2017, at Sewall Center in Moon.
Pitt's Justice Kithcart drives past Pitt-Johnstown's Isaac Vescovi Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at Petersen Events Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Justice Kithcart drives past Pitt-Johnstown's Isaac Vescovi Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, at Petersen Events Center.

Architects' drawings of Robert Morris' $50 million UPMC Events Center — due to open in two years and already an important recruiting tool — are stored carefully in a filing cabinet on campus.

Robert Morris coach Andy Toole will get to them later.

For the moment, his thoughts are locked on the X's and O's of basketball. His team's fifth berth in a Northeast Conference championship game since 2011 is at stake Saturday in a tournament semifinal at No. 1 seed Mount St. Mary's. Tipoff is at 2 p.m.

Robert Morris (14-18) reached this point the hard way, carrying a losing record into the tournament with a team that has a freshman and two sophomores in the starting lineup and two more freshmen getting valuable minutes off the bench.

Senior point guard Kavon Stewart extended the season by hitting the winning shot with three seconds to play in a 69-68 quarterfinal victory Wednesday at No. 2 seed LIU Brooklyn.

If Stewart missed, the Robert Morris bus would have turned west toward Moon and more regrets instead of south headed to Emmitsburg, Md., with additional hope along for the ride.

Toole, an Ivy Leaguer who has steered the Colonials to 134 victories, four conference regular-season championships and an NCAA Tournament berth in seven years, is proud of his team's growth. Robert Morris was 0-5 and 7-16 before winning seven of its past nine games. Seven of its nine NEC losses were by a total of 29 points.

“They are starting to understand a little more,” he said, “and just figure out, not even from the physical side, (but) the mental and preparation side, what it takes.

“They have their own personality and sometimes do it their way, but it's been nice to see the growth that they've made. It takes some patience, and at times I've looked at it and said there must be an easier way to do this, but that's not really how we operate.”

Stewart is a good example.

“He made the game-winning shot, but earlier in the half he made some plays that just kind of baffle you,” Toole said.

“He stuck with it. Our team stuck with it, and in the end, he came up with the big shot in a big moment.”

Stewart is second in scoring on the team, averaging 11.2 points. Sophomore Isaiah Still scores at a 15.6 rate.

Two young players — freshman Dachon Burke and sophomore Matty McConnell of Chartiers Valley — have picked up their production in NEC games. Burke is averaging 7.8 points but 10.2 in the conference. McConnell is at 6.9 overall and 8.3.

Freshmen Clive Allen and Braden Burke, a 6-foot-11, 220-pound center, average the most minutes among non-starters.

Mount St. Mary's (17-15) defeated Robert Morris twice, 48-47, in Maryland and, 74-70, at Sewall Center. Its record is deceiving after playing five schools from Power 5 conferences (West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas) and losing to all of them by an average of 20 points.

Since starting 1-11 (with the first nine games on the road), Mount St. Mary's is 16-4.

“They're a tough team, especially in their own building,” Toole said.

Beyond Saturday, the future at Robert Morris appears promising. Earlier this year, Toole, 36, signed his third contract extension that could keep him at the school through the 2020-2021 season.

UPMC Events Center, with seating capacity of 4,200, will open sometime during the 2018-2019 season, and Toole already has been showing drawings and an animated video of the building to recruits.

“With the way Division I basketball works now, having the practice facility, having all those things, is of high importance,” he said. “It's an arms race in Division I basketball, and if we want to continue our success and even try to raise the bar, a facility was the next step.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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