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March 9, 2013

Game Day: NEC Semifinals

Velton Jones never experienced the Mount St. Mary's-Robert Morris rivalry when it was at its apex. The most the redshirt senior guard got a chance to taste was when he sat out during the 2008-2009 season and watched RMU beat the Mount in the 2009 NEC Championship.

But despite missing out on the intensity on the floor, Jones made sure he passed on what it meant.

"I remember everything. I was actually here when Robert Morris lost to the semis (in 2008) with Jeremy Goode," Jones said. "I used to hear about it all the time, so when I got here, I used to try and talk about it whenever we played Mount, how big of a rivalry it used to be."

Game 33: Mount St. Mary's
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WHEN: March 9, 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Charles L. Sewall Center
TV/RADIO: ESPN3.com, Fox College Sports-Central, MSG2 (All TV), WPIT 730 AM/WPITAM.com (RMU Radio)
YAHOO! SPORTS RPI RANKINGS: Mount St. Mary's 136, Robert Morris 113
KENPOM RANKINGS: Mount St. Mary's 211, Robert Morris 126
PROJECTED MOUNT ST. MARY'S STARTERS: F Raven Barber (6'8, 235, Jr.), G Sam Prescott (6'3, 185, Jr.), G Rashad Whack (6'2, 179, Jr.), G Julian Norfleet (6'2, 165, Jr.), G Shivaughn Wiggins (5'10, 160, Fr.)
PROJECTED ROBERT MORRIS STARTERS: C Mike McFadden (6'8, 220, Jr.), F Russell Johnson (6'6, 180, RSr.), F Lucky Jones (6'6, 205, So.), G Coron Williams 6'2, 170, RJr.), G Velton Jones (6'0, 170, RSr.)

After four years, Jones might get a chance to reignite the rivalry when Mount St. Mary's stops into the Sewall Center for the Northeast Conference semifinal on Saturday. Head coach Andy Toole said after watching Mount St. Mary's cycle through three coaches and three different styles, NEC staffs knew Mount had talent this year and it's no surprise to see it come together quickly.

"It took some time for those guys to get acclimated again," Toole said. "It's just been a progression their team has been on since the beginning of the year where they've improved every time they've been on the floor."

Mount St. Mary's has improved rapidly enough that they might even offer a different look from what RMU experienced back in January when the Colonials won 76-68. Robert Morris built a double-digit lead in that game, only to have the Mount whittle it down to eight in the final two minutes. Jones said it was a lesson on closing games out.

"We haven't really been put in that situation in a little bit of time, but I feel like we're better at it," Jones said. "In that game, we knew they weren't going to stop and we had to keep playing. You can never relax with them."

The Mount's adopted a more athletic, four-guard lineup since that game, putting talented guards Julian Norfleet and Shivaughn Wiggins on the floor at the same time as Rashad Whack and Sam Prescott.

"It's kind of difficult to guard, especially if you're a team that's not used to having the four-man guard on the wing," Jones said. "But with us, I think we'll be okay, just because we have Russell (Johnson) and Lucky (Jones) and how we play."

It's no secret that ball control will be the ultimate concern in the game. Robert Morris quickly went to work on Mount St. Mary's set defense in the last game, using rapid ball movement to get guys out of position and provide open looks. It's always been a part of RMU's offense, but Jones said this particular group likes sharing the ball and making an above average play to get someone else a bucket.

"I think that's what makes this team kind of special. No one cares who scores," Jones said. "People are trying to get assists. 'Get me the ball so I can pass it. Shoot the ball!' It's real fun to play like that when no one cares who scores. It's not all about points and I think our team has grasped that aspect."

But attacking Mount's half-court defense is only half the battle. With their pressing, "Mayhem"-monikored full-court defense, turnovers can quickly end up in the opposition's basket. With Jones and Anthony Myers-Pate both healthy, Toole's hopeful they'll keep the Colonials calm and poised in the heat of the moment.

"They don't get knocked around as much. These guys are two strong, physical guards where it takes a lot to knock them off balance. That helps them a lot in pressure situations," Toole said. "Both guys are so capable of being strong with the ball and handling the ball, a lot of teams don't have a secondary defender that can apply the same types of pressure. Mount's one of the teams in our league that has those types of guys that can apply that type of pressure. If you only have one of (Myers-Pate or Jones), there's a chance that guy can be affected by the opponent's good defender."

Robert Morris will have both Saturday and it hopes that will be enough to make it to the NEC title game for the fifth year in a row.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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