- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

EMMITSBURG, Md. — Milan Brown has made the long post-loss walk before with Coppin State’s longtime basketball coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell on the opposite side of the court.

The coach of Mount St. Mary’s hopes to avoid making it again when his team takes on its Baltimore-area neighbor in tonight’s NCAA tournament opening round game in Dayton, Ohio.

“My last game [as a player] was in the MEAC tournament against Coppin,” said Brown, who was a point guard for Howard, where he holds the school record for assists with 445.

“It still stings. You always remember the last one, win, lose or draw.”

A memory will be made tonight for Mount St. Mary’s, which has turned the defensive philosophy of a former offensive-minded guard into Northeast Conference success.

“When we started my first year, just looking at who we had personnel wise, we had to make the decision [to play a defensive style] off the top,” said Brown, 37, who took over for legendary coach Jim Phelan at the Mount in 2003. “I thought that was what we were going to need to do. One, to win championships, yes. But two, it was what we were going to have to do just to survive and be in games.”

For the last three seasons, the Mountaineers have been one of the top defensive teams in the Northeast Conference. The last two, they have ranked second in the conference in scoring defense and this season they were first, giving up 66.9 points a game.

In last Wednesday’s 68-55 victory over Sacred Heart in the Northeast Conference tournament final, Mount St. Mary’s held the Pioneers to 29.1 percent shooting. Sacred Heart didn’t score a point for almost seven minutes in the first half.

“If you are going to be on the floor for coach, you are going to have to play some kind of defense,” point guard Jeremy Goode said. “You have to play defense with enthusiasm, or you are going to out of here with enthusiasm.”

Brown’s defensive mentality has shown up in his recruiting. Sophomore Kelly Beidler, freshman Jean Cajou, a Fairfax native, and redshirt freshman Tayvon Johnson were all named defensive player of the year in high school.

“I love playing defense,” Cajou said. “I think that’s the main reason why they recruited me. They know I can keep my man in front of me and make stops.”

The Mountaineers (18-14) have used their defense to earn their third NCAA tournament berth and first since 1999, when Brown was an assistant under Phelan.

But, lately, their offense has excelled, a big reason why they have won five straight and eight of nine.

The Mountaineers scored 80 or more points in the three games before the NEC championship. They averaged 69.1 on the season.

Reserves like Cajou and Beidler have produced, too.

The Mount’s bench scored 42, 39, and 30 points, respectively, in its three NEC tournament wins.

Beidler scored 15 points in all three tournament games, and Cajou also scored 15 in the win over Sacred Heart.

“Chris [Vann] and Jeremy and a couple of the other guys are really our main point contributors,” Beidler said. “The way I score is just getting offensive rebounds and running up and down the court. I just do my part to help the team out.”

It was a home loss to Sacred Heart on Jan. 19 that convinced Brown his team needed to change its philosophy on offense. The Mountaineers went to a more up-tempo style.

“It’s hard for me to do that in the middle of January, come in and say ‘Guys, we need to make a change,’ ” Brown said. “But it was a change in offense to shoot more shots and play faster. They guys were like, ‘OK coach, I guess we can deal with that.’ ”

The Mountaineers understand what is at stake against Coppin State (16-20), which is just as hot, having won 12 of its last 13.

“We’re overwhelmed, just the fact that we are in the NCAA tournament,” Vann said.

The Mount has yet to win a game in two previous trips to the tournament in 1995 and 1999.

“It gives us a good chance to make history with the university and the program,” Vann said. “It’s a game we are capable of winning.”

The winner of the opening round game will travel to Raleigh, N.C., to play Friday against North Carolina (32-2), the top overall seed.

For Goode, the sophomore point guard who grew up in Charlotte, it would be homecoming of sorts.

“I haven’t been home since Christmas break, and now the next time I go home I could be playing in the NCAA tournament,” Goode said. “I mean, you can’t beat that.”

Brown and Mitchell still talk about “some of the games they won and the ones that we won” when Brown played for Howard against Mitchell’s Coppin State teams.

“We know Coppin is really hot right now, and they’re playing good basketball. So it’s going to be a tough test,” Brown said. “I was tempted to call Fang and ask him, ‘Why don’t we just meet at the Verizon Center and save us the cost of travel.’ ”

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