Uphill battle nothing new for Robert Morris men's basketball
You can say this much for the Robert Morris men's basketball program under coach Andy Toole:
Deficits and doubters don't matter.
For the second consecutive season, Robert Morris (16-16) will carry the seventh seed in the eight-team Northeast Conference tournament into the semifinals. Tipoff is 2 p.m. Saturday on the campus of top-seeded Wagner (22-8) in Staten Island, N.Y.
Visiting Robert Morris defeated No. 2 seed Mount St. Mary's on Wednesday, 60-56, erasing a 13-point deficit it faced late in the first half. It was the second time in the past 14 years a No. 7 defeated a No. 2 in the NEC Tournament. The Colonials were the first to do it — last year against LIU Brooklyn.
“We play really well when our backs are against the wall,” Toole said. “We really competed. Guys stayed together and continued to follow the game plan. We had really good positive energy when adversity hit.”
In Toole's eight seasons as coach, his teams have rallied to win from double-digit deficits 26 times.
This season hasn't been easy for the Colonials. While rebuilding with 10 new players, the team did not have a true home court, using PPG Paints Arena and Palumbo Center while the 4,000-seat UPMC Events Center is under construction on the Moon campus. (It should be ready by January.)
“We certainly could have used the home-court advantage or crowd energy,” Toole said. “I think that's where it hurt us a little bit.”
Still, Robert Morris opened its NEC schedule 7-2 before finishing 9-9. A 2-6 stretch at midseason included two 13-point losses to Wagner and 25- and 19-point defeats to Mount St. Mary's.
“We kind of relaxed a little bit (after the strong start),” Toole said. “That was a mistake on all of our parts. We learned some lessons about conference basketball, getting scouted, teams are adjusting. You have to show up Thursday and Saturday, have to bounce back from wins and losses and refocus yourself on your opponent.”
Junior guard Matty McConnell (Chartiers Valley) is the Colonials' most experienced player, and he played like it Wednesday. After scoring 18 in the victory at Mount St. Mary's, he increased his scoring average in four career NEC Tournament games to 14.5. In that time, he's hit 12 of 24 3-pointers.
Sophomore Dachon Burke did a little bit of everything: 14 points, six assists, three blocks and two steals.
Toole used three freshmen in his starting lineup: NEC Rookie of the Year Koby Thomas, Charles Bain and Jon Williams, who scored 11 points in 33 minutes.
He makes no promises about his team's 10th NEC semifinal appearance in 11 years (Toole's been the constant in all that time), but he's pleased his young team is improving as the season progresses.
“Guys are catching on,” he said.