If things went right, the situation was supposed to play out like a dream for Robert Morris.
The team that played with and somehow excelled with eight players for two months was a game away from an NCAA tournament berth that once appeared improbable in a lost season.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, that dream wasn't necessarily a nightmare, but instead, a cruel twist of fate -- the team that had defied the numbers the entire season was not able to do so one more time.
Mount St. Mary's got off to a hot shooting start, one that it never entirely strayed away from, as it buried 60.4 percent of its field goals to defeat Robert Morris, 88-71, in the Northeast Conference championship Tuesday night at Sewall Center.
After the game, sitting before the media, Colonials coach Andy Toole was asked about what his eight-man group meant to him.
The sounds of celebrating Mount St. Mary's players reverberated from the floor below, a stark reminder of what had just happened. With that noise in the background, Toole's answer was simple.
"The eight guys that are in the locker room right now that are crushed were incredible to coach," he said. "The efforts they gave on a daily basis really didn't show [Tuesday night] and that's what's so upsetting, because they deserve better. They deserve better."
The win by the Mountaineers (16-16) marked the second consecutive year that they eliminated the Colonials (21-13) from the NEC tournament. With the loss, Robert Morris has fallen in three of the past four conference championships.
Despite the loss, the season is not over, as it automatically qualified for the National Invitation Tournament by virtue of winning the conference regular-season title.
Mount St. Mary's had five players finish in double figures, led by 20 points from guard Rashad Whack.
Guard Karvel Anderson, the NEC player of the year, had a team-high 21 points for Robert Morris. Forward Lucky Jones and guard Charles Oliver added 11 points apiece.
From the game's opening moments, the Mountaineers had little trouble against Robert Morris' 2-3 zone, a scheme that had become so effective over the past month.
Mount St. Mary's made 14 of its first 19 shots, jumping out to a 37-17 lead by eviscerating the gaps in the zone for easy looks that ultimately turned into points.
By halftime, the shooting numbers and lead were largely the same, as the Mountaineers made 69.2 percent of its shots and had a 48-32 advantage.
"They put their three best players -- [Julian] Norfleet, Whack and [Sam] Prescott -- two guys high and Prescott at the foul-line area and made us make choices," Toole said. "Unfortunately, it seemed like every choice we made was the wrong one."
The Colonials threatened that lead occasionally in the second half, trimming its deficit to as little as 10 with 12:44 remaining. Any momentum, however, ultimately proved to be short-lived as they began to force shots and kept trying to make what Toole described as "10-point plays."
Mount St. Mary's quickly pushed its lead back to 17 points, and from there the Colonials did not present a formidable challenge for the remainder of the game.
"We won this championship through the regular season by playing a tough non-conference schedule, by sticking together through tough times," Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian said. "I think [Tuesday night], you got the chance to see a team that just really connected."
Robert Morris' senior class becomes the first since 2008 to go through without making the NCAA tournament.
The theme of Toole's postgame message routinely went back to those players, the ones who gave him and the program so much during the season, only to fall short of their season-long goal.
"I'm just disappointed for our team because I just wish we would have played better so we would have given ourselves a chance because I thought they deserved that," Toole said. "It's just disappointing."
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
First Published March 11, 2014 9:24 PM