Christian making his own impressive mark at Mount St. Mary's
By Greg Swatek | March 9, 2017
EMMITSBURG — On the recruiting trail, Jamion Christian implores prospective players, “Let’s sign up to do something that’s never been done before.”
He’s selling them on playing men’s basketball at Mount St. Mary’s, a small, rural university where Jim Phelan once coached for 49 years, compiled 830 wins, captured a Division II national championship and two Northeast Conference Tournament championships and had the court named after him.
In other words, “It’s kind of hard to be the head coach here and do something that hasn’t been done [before] because [Coach Phelan] has achieved just about everything,” Christian, a former player and team captain for Phelan, said.
Yet in five seasons on the job Christian has already managed to pull it off.
On Tuesday night, Mount St. Mary’s hosted the Northeast Conference championship game before a national-television audience on ESPN2 and a standing-room only crowd at Knott Arena. It was something that had never been done before.
The Mountaineers rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit and beat St. Francis (Pennsylvania) 71-61 to win the NEC Tournament for the second time under Christian and continue a remarkable journey that has led from a 1-11 start to this season to next week’s NCAA tournament.
“It’s been a long time,” Christian said in the postgame press conference, wearing the net from one of the baskets around his neck, overtop of his suit, as a symbol of the championship.
“When you look at NEC basketball for the last 10 or 15 years, the Mount has been one of the best teams. We just haven’t been able to have that special season where we can win all of these [NEC Tournament] games at home.
“We have an unbelievable fan base, unbelievable support. If we are able to play at home, it’s going to be tough for teams to beat us here.”
The 34-year-old Christian has made it happen through his determination, competitiveness and relentlessly optimistic nature.
During the offseason, he turned over his entire coaching staff. Only Justine Miller, the team’s coordinator of basketball operations, remained on the staff.
Christian set up one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, knowing that his players could handle it and it wouldn’t crush their confidence or the team’s spirit.
Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) played its first nine games on the road, including matchups with West Virginia and Iowa State, who were nationally ranked at the time.
The team was away from campus for 20 consecutive days and had only a 78-76 overtime win over George Mason — secured on a buzzer-beating dunk by junior forward Chris Wray — to show for it.
The Mountaineers sunk to 1-11 overall before opening conference play Dec. 29 with a 67-65 victory at LIU Brooklyn. It was once again Wray who went coast to coast and made the game-winning layup at the buzzer.
Mount St. Mary’s won 10 of its first 11 NEC games, including eight in a row, to take control of the conference.
The Mountaineers finished the regular season at 16-15 overall and 14-4 in the NEC. They earned the No. 1 seed in the NEC Tournament for the second time in their history and the first time since their 1995 team went 16-2 during the league’s regular season.
Last week, on the eve of the tournament’s first round, Christian was named the NEC Coach of the Year.
“He does a great job of helping us stay in the present moment,” said sophomore guard Elijah Long, the team’s leading scorer.
In Christian parlance, that’s called being locked in, one of the hallmarks of his coaching philosophy along with unselfishness.
“It’s hard because we are a young group,” Long said. “But he has taken us so far.”
With home-court advantage throughout the NEC Tournament, Mount St. Mary’s survived a tough test in the quarterfinals to beat Sacred Heart 76-73 on March 1.
Last Saturday, the Mountaineers overcame an early nine-point deficit and pulled away in the final minute for a 75-66 victory over Robert Morris in the NEC semifinals.
Then, on Tuesday night, with his team trailing St. Francis (Pennsylvania) 31-23 at halftime of the league championship game, Christian strode into the locker room, clapping his hands and yelling, “Let’s go!”
This is his nature. He almost always looks at the sunny-side of things. But this felt a bit out of character to his players. Given their deficit, they wondered what was going on.
“He came in the locker room, and was like, ‘You just gotta believe. I told you. We’ve got these guys right where we want them,’” Wray said.
Sure enough, the Mountaineers opened the second half with a 22-3 run that not only quickly wiped out their deficit but allowed them to win the championship going away in front of their boisterous home crowd.
The Mountaineers were the NEC Tournament champions for the first time since 2014, Christian’s second season on the job. They have now reached the NEC title game in five of the past 10 years, including Christian’s first season on the job in 2012-13.
“You know, we have 25 percent left of our season,” Christian said with only the hint of a smile, ever the optimist about his team’s NCAA tournament fortunes.
“We are ready for our selection on Sunday. We are going to prepare for whatever opponent we have and wherever we have to go. But I love this team. We played a high-major schedule in non-conference for a reason, and we played well in those games. We are a better team now because we played well in those games.”
*Photo courtesy of the Associated Press: Mount St. Mary's head coach Jamion Christian enjoys cutting down the net Tuesday night at Knott Arena after his Mountaineers won the NEC Tournament before a packed audience.