Junior Robinson may be small in size, but he came big when his team needed him the most. The diminutive guard, the shortest player in the NCAA Tournament at 5'5", hit the go-ahead jumper with 1:27 to play to lift Mount St. Mary's to a 67-66 win over New Orleans in the First Four.
The Mountaineers advance to a Thursday night matchup with top seed and defending national champion Villanova in Buffalo. After leading for most of the game, Mount St. Mary's fell behind 64-63 after two free throws by New Orleans' Christavious Gill before Robinson's shot gave The Mount the lead for good.
Mountaineers head coach Jamion Christian was in awe of his star guard: "The way he plays out there — his speed, his athleticism — it's just so special", the fifth-year head man said. "When you're a smaller guy, you're naturally going to have a chip on your shoulder and you want to go out there and show the world the things you can do."
Off night for Long, Wilson helps to pick up the slack
Robinson's backcourt mate, Elijah Long is also a big reason why Mount St. Mary's recovered from a 1-11 start to reach the NCAA's, but he scored just six points on 3-7 from the field, including missing both of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Enter Miles Wilson. The freshman guard, averaging 11.5 points per game this season, tallied 17 to go along with 11 rebounds to fill the void left by Long's off night.
He scored eight of the Mountaineers' first 15 points, including a three-pointer that pushed the Mount's lead to 18-11, capping a 13-1 run, aided by six straight missed shots by New Orleans.
After falling behind 4-0 early, The Mount led by as many as 11 after Will Miller's triple gave them a 30-19 lead with 4:20 to go in the first half. The lead at halftime stood at 32-29 after a 10-2 run by New Orleans to finish up the first half. Erik Thomas led the Privateers with 12 points in the opening twenty minutes.
Thomas shut out in the second half after excellent first half
After those dozen points in the first half, Thomas, the Southland Conference Player of the Year, missed both of his shots in the second half while turning it over three times and grabbing two rebounds. Despite the senior forward's invisible second half, New Orleans clawed their way back into the game.
Forcing eight turnovers in the second half, the Privateers scored 12 points off of those eight Mountaineer giveaways. Nate Frye's jumper cut the lead to 40-39 with 14:45 to go and after Robinson committed one of those turnovers, Travin Thibodeaux nailed a jumper to pull UNO even at 49-49, the first tie of the game.
After Robinson and Thibodeaux traded buckets, New Orleans had a chance to take their first lead since 9-7, but came up empty on consecutive opportunities. Greg Alexander's three put The Mount back in front 54-51 and with 6:36 left to go, the Mountaineers held a 58-55 lead when the turning point of the game occurred.
Thibodeaux chokes teammate, benched for the remainder of the game
With Thomas off in the second half, it was Thibodeaux that picked up the slack for New Orleans, scoring 11 points on 5-6 from the floor, but during a timeout, frustrated that he didn't get the ball passed to him, the junior forward choked his teammate after Gill shoved him.
Coach Mark Slessinger explained the incident and his decision to sit Thibodeaux the rest of the way: "Well, we've got two extremely competitive guys there," Slessinger said. "And, I mean, they're best friends, to be honest with you. Just got sideways with each other. One thought he should have zigged, and the other thought he should have zagged. They got sideways with each other, they got into it and I made the decision to sit Travin the rest of the half.
"I thought it was in the best interest of our team moving forward for the half. It was disappointing."
New Orleans nearly completes comeback, comes up empty on final possession
Following the incident, New Orleans made one final charge, cutting the lead to 61-59 on a Michael Zeno layup with 5:22 left to play and again to 63-62 when Frye converted on a layup with exactly four minutes to go and hitting the subsequent free throw.
Following a foul on Mount St. Mary's Mawdo Sallah, Gill hit two free throws to give the Privateers their first lead since less than five minutes into the game. That's when Robinson's clutch shot put The Mount out in front for good.
A foul on UNO's Tevin Broyles sent Wilson to the free throw line, where he calmly sank both attempts to give the Mountaineers a 67-64 lead. With 35 seconds left, Frye converted on two free throws and after Slessinger elected not to foul with his team down 67-66, Robinson missed a jumper.
Thomas grabbed the rebound and with 2.6 seconds to play, UNO called timeout. Thomas' length-of-the-court inbounds pass was deflected and time expired, sending Mount St. Mary's to Buffalo and New Orleans, one of the Tournament's great comeback stories, home.
Frye reflected on the Privateers' magical season and the future of the program: "We started the engine on the car, and now the car is moving", said the senior guard, who led New Orleans with 18 points. "We've got to pick up speed and keep building off what we did this year. We established the building blocks of what was broken down from Katrina".