When Lincoln (Pa.) University basketball coach John Hill took the top job in September, graduation and transfers left him with four returning players and less than two months to assemble a team.
Luckily for Hill, one of those returning players was Denzel Mooney.
The 6-foot-3 junior from Western Tech has played every position but center for the Lions in their first season as an active member of Division II. His team-high 21.6 points per game have been a bright spot on a team that has won just three times this season.
"I wanted an increased role coming into this year, but I didn't know it was going to be like this." said Mooney, who was named a first-team Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association selection this week. "I've been trying to assume a [leadership] role. It's been a learning process, but I've been handling it well."
Hill quickly identified Mooney as a player who was going to be the focal point of his offense, a distinction that has thrust Mooney into a leadership role on the inexperienced team.
"We move him anywhere on floor," Hill said. "We're always trying to get him the ball."
And with good reason. On a team composed mostly of walk-ons, Mooney's scoring average is twice as high as the team's next leading scorer, and he's led the team in scoring in 20 of 25 games.
Mike Slepesky, who coached Mooney at Western Tech, said that with the extra coaching that comes in college, Mooney had a chance to be special at the next level.
"He's always been someone with a great mid-range and outside shot," Slepesky said. "He always worked hard and never really let the game get the best of him emotionally."
Though Mooney has gone over 30 points five times and scored more than 20 points in 16 games, including a stretch of eight in a row, two of his best outings of the season came here in his home state. Mooney scored a then-career high 31 points in a December game at Division I Coppin State, excelling at the highest level in front of his friends and family.
"He can play with those guys," Hill said of his star, who had some Division I interest coming out of Western Tech, but ultimately wasn't offered a scholarship. "What he did wasn't by chance. I'd never seen him dunk a basketball, and he dunked during that game. It was good for the team, too."
On his return to Maryland two months later, Mooney scored 37 in an overtime loss at Bowie State on Feb. 6, shooting just six of 17 from the floor but 25 of 31 from the free-throw line.
Mooney downplayed the return to his home state, instead attributing his performance to his new leadership role.
"Coach [Hill] got ejected in the first three minutes, so we had to rally," he said. "We pulled together as a team. I had to make sure I kept everybody together and make things happen."
The Lions were trailing by 15 at one point and came back to lead in the second half before Bowie won in overtime.
During his first two seasons, Mooney was a shooter off the bench, averaging six points in his first season and 5.6 last year. But a focused offseason program in which he lifted weights in the morning, took shots in the afternoon and played pick-up ball with area Division I players at night prepared Mooney to take on more responsibility this season.
"He embraced the situation and knew what to expect," Hill said. "Because we had a group of kids who didn't know how to make plays, he shouldered the load. As a result, he's been double- and triple-teamed"
Mooney enjoys the challenge of unlocking a different defense every night, and is proud of the performances that have earned him the league's attention on and off the court.
He's been named CIAA Newcomer of the Week a league-high five times, as well as being awarded the conference Player of the Week award on Dec. 14 and Eastern College Athletic Conference Player of the Week on Jan. 18.
Despite the personal accolades, Mooney wishes the team could win more. He missed a last-second 3 last month against Elizabeth City State that would have given the Lions a rare victory, and put the loss on himself.
"We haven't consented to the fact that we aren't supposed to win," Hill said. "He felt like he had the opportunity to win the game for us, but the shot didn't go in. I made it clear that that one shot didn't lose the game."
Said Mooney: "It was hard for me. Everybody had battled so hard, and it seemed like it was right there for the taking."
In that sense, Mooney sees plenty of similarities between this season with Lincoln and his last season at Western Tech, in which everyone knew he was the team's primary scoring threat and wins were hard to come by.
"It's similar in the sense that everyone is putting forth the effort and we're still coming up short," Mooney said. "We're progressing every day. Eventually, stuff is going to fall into place."