First Four: Albany withstands Mount St. Mary's to move on to face No. 1 Florida
DAYTON -- DJ Evans had no interest in playing his final game for Albany in Dayton, Ohio. He just wasn’t done yet. The 5-foot-9 senior tied his career high with 22 points and added nine rebounds as the 16-seed Great Danes took Game 1 of the First Four, 71-64, over fellow 16-seed Mount St. Mary’s. It marks the first NCAA tournament victory in Albany school history.
"DJ is a terrific player," Albany guard Peter Hooley said. "I knew that coming in. He's really an unbelievable player, every part of the court. He got nine rebounds and he's about 4-8, so that's really impressive."
Albany did a great job early of playing at its tempo and forcing Mount St. Mary’s to play in the half-court set. The Mountaineers like to take three-pointers, but they are best at shooting them in transition, and the Great Danes leapt out to a 13-0 lead. Mount St. Mary’s finally got on the board with 13:17 to play in the first half. It was 21-2 before MSM finally hit a three-point basket.
The Mountaineers started pressing and started hitting their threes, and all of a sudden it was 21-20. Albany isn’t comfortable playing fast, and it showed when Mount St. Mary’s started pressing and forcing the Great Danes into mistakes.
It seemed like a minor miracle when the Mountaineers tied it up at 23 with 5:26 to play in the first half, and there were a lot of hands on hips from the Albany players. Mount St. Mary’s started the half shooting 1-of-13 (7.7 percent) and finished the half 10 of its next 19. Albany recovered to take a 35-31 lead at the break.
Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian, a former VCU assistant, basically runs a reduced version of Shaka Smart's "Havoc." Christian wants his team to force turnovers, speed the game up, and funnel the ball into spots on the floor where it shoots best. He doesn’t quite have the personnel to run it with the same ferocity that Smart does, but it does its job at times.
Albany turned the ball over 14 times and looked visibly flustered and bothered, like Joba Chamberlain fighting off the midges in Cleveland in 2007. The Great Danes were spending more time focused on what Mount St. Mary’s was doing and not enough time on patiently getting into their offensive sets.
"Blowing a 19‑point lead," Albany coach Will Brown said. "We're the only game on national television, so we wanted to keep the viewers interested. No, I mean, basketball is a game of runs, and we happened to make that first run. And Mount St. Mary's is too good of a team, they're too good offensively. And they play the pressure, defense and they, just as VCU [does], it's havoc. So we just knew they'd make a run."
The Great Danes finally wrested the pace of play back to their level by making shots and forcing Mount St. Mary’s to take a lot of the shot clock. The Mountaineers stalled midway through the second half and were passing it around the perimeter before taking an out-of-rhythm jump shot.
On one particular trip down the court, Brown yelled out the play and slowed his guys down. John Puk made a cut into the lane and finished an easy hoop to put the Great Danes up 63-56. Mountaineers’ freshman Will Miller cut the lead to 63-62 on back-to-back threes. He had 21 points on 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, and the Mountaineers shot 12-of-37 as a team from deep. But they couldn’t get one more to fall when they were down 63-60 with the ball, and the Great Danes sealed it.
As a reward for their hard-fought effort, Albany draws top-seeded Florida on Thursday.