Mount would love to have history repeat itself

At 5-16, '99-like surge seems unlikely, but return of Whitaker would help

State notebook

February 11, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Once again, an uphill climb beckons for the Mount St. Mary's men's basketball team, which made it to the NCAA tournament last season and had expectations of making a repeat appearance.

That was before the team began the season by losing 10 of its first 12 games, acting as easy prey in most of them, judged by the scores. The 5-16 record after last night's 80-69 loss to St. Francis (N.Y.) wouldn't seem to translate into postseason contention.

But that also was the belief at this point last season, when the Mountaineers had a 10-10 record. The team played well in the next three games -- in the NEC tournament -- thus creating the expectations that have now fallen.

This season, there are at least some identifiable culprits -- poor shooting and the absence of Melvin Whitaker, who suffered a fractured ankle before the team began play in November.

None of this has affected the sense of humor of Mount coach Jim Phelan, who went into a Westminster doctor's office earlier this week for treatment of a rotator cuff injury. "I guess my pitching career is over," he said.

Whitaker may be back for the final week of the regular season, but the poor shooting may be here to stay, which would mean the true end for Mount St. Mary's.

Twice this season, the Mountaineers have shot better than 45 percent from the field. In their other 18 games, they have had trouble breaking 40 percent. Their 39 percent overall mark ranks as the worst in a not-so-sharp shooting league.

Gregory Harris is still one of the team's top scorers at 16 points a game, but his 36 percent shooting is well under his 42 percent from last season, and his totals in rebounds, assists and steals are all down.

The defense hasn't been much better, giving up 74.2 points a game.

Still, Phelan, who is in his 46th year at the school, remains encouraged by what his team could do. MSM's trip to league leaders Central Connecticut State and Quinnipiac last weekend mildly underscored his optimism.

In both games, the Mountaineers held on for most of the 40 minutes before losing by a dozen points each time. "Right now, we've played well," Phelan said. "We lost two games in Connecticut, but they were games we had a chance in. At the end, we're playing just poorly enough to lose games we shouldn't lose."

As for Whitaker, the leg is supposed to be healing nicely, and he may begin running next week. Phelan describes the 6-10 sophomore as "the only bona-fide shot-blocker in the league," with his nearly three blocked shots a game last season offered as proof.

Toward the end of last season, he also became more of an offensive presence and finished with an 11-point average.

There's a possibility Whitaker may be redshirted this season, but if he were to return at the end of this month, it would certainly add an athletic dimension in the post that the team is now lacking.

"If he comes back, you'd hate for some people to look at him like he's the miracle worker," Phelan said. "He's not going to take over and dominate in three games."

Local MEAC schools rising

Last weekend offered a gauge of how far the women's basketball programs at Morgan State and Coppin State have come over the past few seasons.

On Saturday, the Eagles led perennial Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference power Howard for all but about 10 minutes before losing in the final minutes.

Two days later, the Bears did their cross-town rivals one better by beating the Bison worse than the 91-84 final would indicate, leading by 16 points late in the second half.

While Coppin's Kiesha Brooks still remains one of the nation's top scorers and rebounders, Morgan's Shakira Smith took MEAC Player of the Week honors by averaging 23.5 points, seven rebounds, seven steals and 4.5 assists in wins over South Carolina State and Delaware State.

Right now, Morgan State sits in third place in the MEAC, while Coppin State is in fourth.

Both of the teams' coaches were quick fill-ins after the abrupt departures of their predecessors.

Morgan's Gerard Garlic took over in July after Darcel Estep went to St. John's, while Derek Brown was (and still is) Fang Mitchell's top assistant with the Coppin men's program before Jennie Hall resigned in December.

Brown will coach Coppin's women next season, while Garlic's status is up in the air.

Miscellaneous

Eighteen UMBC athletes earned 4.0 grade-point averages during the fall semester, including NEC cross-country champion Jen Ecker and all-conference volleyball player Jill Riding. The school is scheduled to host the conference championships for women's swimming and diving, beginning today. Towson gymnastics coach Dick Filbert saw his win total go over 300 last Wednesday with a victory over Temple. He's now 302-64-2. The Johns Hopkins wrestling team (4-6-2) earned its fourth win of the season last weekend, beating Gallaudet (35-18) for its highest victory total since 1997. Meanwhile, the wrestling team at Western Maryland (11-2, 5-1) has tied for its third straight dual-meet title in the Centennial Conference and seems to be headed for the conference title after finishing second in 1999.

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