MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — On Jan. 9, Robert Morris started NEC play 3-0 after taking down St. Francis Brooklyn 78-52 in its first conference home game on the brand-new Peoples Court at the UPMC Events Center. Then two weeks later, the two teams met again, this time in Brooklyn Height, N.Y., and the result was a complete 180-degree turn.
This time around, the Terriers took advantage of their home court and beat the Colonials 78-57, giving them just their second loss in the conference.
Fast forward five weeks ahead, and it’s March, and these two teams will see each other again for what will be the biggest game of the season for each of the conference foes.
In the Robert Morris win, they held the Terriers to just 34.5% from the field, while they shot the ball at a 54.2% mark. In the St. Francis Brooklyn win, the Colonials shot only 38.1%, and the Terriers made 53.6% of their attempts. Also, the turnover battle was nearly identical in both games (RMU having a 25-20 edge in that department).
So, who budges this go around? You’d think Robert Morris would have the upper hand, with having homecourt advantage, while coming off arguably its best overall performance of the season against St. Francis (PA) on Saturday. And now, with facing a team in the Terriers who have dropped seven of their last 11 games since beating RMU on Jan. 23.
“Rarely do you see outcomes like that in a two-week span, where the same two teams, with the same five starters, have dramatic differences in the final outcome,” Toole said about the two previous meetings. “It’s a good reminder for our guys. We know that St. Francis (NY) is always one of the toughest teams to play in the league. Their defensive energy is tenacious; they try to disrupt all of your ability to run any kind of offense. … I told our guys after the (loss) that we could have played with seven guys, and we would have lost the game. St. Francis was so locked in, and we were so not locked in.
“I think (that outcome) is a good way to keep guys’ attention, as you go into a quarterfinal game, understanding kind of the best of both worlds, right?” Toole added. “What you can do in order to be successful and what happens if you don’t want to be successful, and that’s what we’ve tried to explain to them here over the last two days.”
Because of that mindset, you would imagine Robert Morris getting too far ahead of themselves and start looking down the road, just because of their No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage.
“We talked starting Sunday night, about making sure we do everything that we can to prepare ourselves to perform well on Wednesday,” Toole said on Tuesday. “That’s the only thing we can control. … The opportunity to have homecourt is what we’ve earned; it doesn’t guarantee you homecourt all the way through. And I think that’s the way that we’ve got to look at it.”
That’s what makes a conference tournament like this one so unique and intriguing. You can’t really build your resume in the early stages of the season and kind of coast the rest of the way until the NCAA tournament comes around toward the end of March. You have to be playing your best basketball as soon as the regular season comes to an end. Only one team from the NEC gets an opportunity to hear their name called on Selection Sunday each year. That team is the team that’s playing their best brand of hoops two weeks before the selection show.
“Our guys are a pretty mature group,” Toole said. “I think they understand that, you know, you don’t get a second opportunity unless you take care of your first one.”
This Robert Morris squad has five guys in Charles Bain, Yannis Mendy, Dante Treacy, Josh Williams, and Jon Williams, who all played in the Colonials’ semifinal loss last season that has fueled them to get to the finish line this season. They are aware of what lies ahead of them, but they also know that they have taken a significant leap since this time last year.
“I think we have a lot of team connectivity (this season),” Junior guard Jon Williams said. “We want to compete, and that’s the main thing about us, is we’re a group that’s competitive. We’re starting to show our emotional side now and have fun with it.”
“This game is going to come down to the final possessions,” Williams said. “It’s always going to be a dog fight; it’s never going to be as pretty as you think or want it to be. It’s always going to be ugly and gritty (at conference tournament games). And that’s what we like.”
Robert Morris’ roster is full of guys that have been overlooked throughout their basketball careers, and they don’t take that thought lightly. That’s what fuels them to overachieve and strive for what’s best not only for themselves as individuals, but the name on the front of their jersey.
“I feel like Robert Morris when it comes to Pitt, and it comes to Duquesne, we’re the underdog,” Williams said. “I like being able to, you know, have a say in winning and getting to the (NCAA) tournament, when other teams don’t.”
Wednesday at 7 p.m. will be the beginning of this team’s journey to accomplish just what Williams put out there.