It wasn’t supposed to end like this. The Robert Morris University Colonials were favored to cut down the nets Tuesday night in front of a sold-out home crowd. Instead, it was Mount St. Mary’s who stormed into RMU’s Sewall Center and won the Northeast Conference Championship, 88-71 in upset fashion.
Mt. Lebanon resident and RMU Head Coach Andy Toole proved that he could do wonders with this basketball program. Normally, NCAA Division I teams carry approximately 13 to 15 players. For Tuesday evening’s title game, the Colonials only dressed eight. That’s five on the court to play and three on the bench. It can prove to be a juggling act more than a coaching strategy. But Toole showed that he could rebound from adversity. Take for example that one of his key players suffered a season ending knee injury this year. On January 23, he also faced the unimaginable loss of four more players, when they were involved in an on-campus incident that saw them suspended from the university for a year.
That’s when he really rolled up his sleeves and got to work with this group of eight players. The Colonials rattled off eight victories in their final 10 games en route to a 14-2 record and outright regular season championship of the NEC. But to advance to the NCAA Tournament, one must win its end of the year conference tournament or earn an at-large bid from the NCAA selection committee. Smaller conferences like the NEC typically only get an invite for its conference tournament champion.
In Tuesday night’s loss, Robert Morris never led. Mount St. Mary’s shot almost a blistering 70 percent from the field and took a commanding 48-32 lead at the half. In the second half, led by a team high 21 points from guard Karvel Anderson, the Colonials cut the lead to just 10 at one instance, but that was as close as they would get.
The season is not completely over for the Colonials. By virtue of its regular season conference title, RMU earned an automatic bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), where they will start play next week. The possibility does exist that they could host a home game to start the tournament.
This season has challenged and enlightened Toole, who is in his fourth year as head coach.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding,” Toole said. “The eight guys that are in the locker room right now, that are crushed, were incredible to coach. The efforts they gave on a daily basis really didn’t show tonight, and that’s what’s so upsetting because they deserved better.”
Then, after making an emotional pause, Toole gathered himself and finished while nodding. “They deserved better.”