Giger: Red Flash, one win away from NCAAs, have made huge strides on road

Commentary

Young people often are oblivious to the past, which can create some problems in the real world, especially when the youngsters repeat the same mistakes others made before them.

In sports, though, being young and oblivious can have major benefits. Young athletes don’t worry about whatever problems a team had in the past because they weren’t there, they can’t relate to those issues and, frankly, they often don’t care.

One of the biggest reasons the Saint Francis men’s basketball team is playing for a Northeast Conference Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament berth tonight is because all of the young, talented players assembled by coach Rob Krimmel are, in his words, “clueless” about one forgettable part of the program’s past.

“They don’t know that history,” Krimmel said. “We don’t talk about it.”

Not too long ago, Saint Francis was absolutely abysmal on the road. And that might be putting it kindly.

I’ve always said this is one of the most incredible stats I’ve ever seen in sports: Over a five-year span from the end of the 2007-08 season until midway through the 2012-13 campaign, the Red Flash went 7-73 on the road.

You read that right — 7-73, which sounds impossible in college basketball.

To understand why this year’s Flash team is so special, why it is on the cusp of just the second NCAA berth in program history, let’s get back to the road record.

Saint Francis has won seven conference road games this season. A program that won only seven times away from home in five years not that long ago has won seven conference road games in the past 66 days.

The Flash won in miraculous fashion at Wagner on Saturday, 71-70, courtesy of Keith Braxton’s wild 3-pointer at the buzzer. And if SFU is indeed going to dance in the NCAA tourney, it will have to win one more time on the road tonight at Mount St. Mary’s, the NEC’s regular-season champ.

What makes this Flash team so effective on the road?

“I’m not really sure, but I think it’s just the mentality that we have,” Braxton, the NEC Rookie of the Year, said. “We’re all mentally strong and prepared.”

That was clearly evident at Wagner, as the Seahawks’ tiny gym was rocking the entire second half in a back-and-forth game. There were numerous instances when Saint Francis could have gotten swept up by the atmosphere and been overtaken by the home team, but it never happened.

The Flash, who start two freshmen and three sophomores, rose to the occasion every time Wagner challenged. Then, on perhaps the biggest shot in program history, a freshman, Braxton, had his one-handed prayer answered for what turned out to be the No. 1 play in the country Saturday as ranked by ESPN.

“This team’s clueless (about the past), especially with so many young guys,” Krimmel said when asked to discuss all the success on the road. “They don’t know any better at this point.

“When you get that confidence, you win one, maybe you win two … that confidence becomes contagious, and the formula for success is something that these guys have embraced.”

Saint Francis went 6-3 on the road in NEC regular-season play, the most wins ever by the program away from home in conference, and Saturday marked the seventh victory. The team also won a game at American and is 8-9 overall on the road, including a fantastic showing at Marquette in a game the Flash trailed by just four points with less than five minutes to play.

No team wins without good players, and the primary reason Saint Francis has been so much better on the road this year is because the program has more talent right now than at any point since the 1991 NCAA tourney team.

Wagner coach Bashir Mason, who has a lot of respect for his friend Krimmel, summed it up best Saturday when he said, “I’ve always felt like he was a really good coach. I don’t know how he got that type of talent level out in Loretto, Pa.”

Talent certainly gives you a chance to win anywhere.

“Number one, you’ve got to have players, so Rob has done a great job recruiting,” SFU athletic director Susan Robinson Fruchtl said after Saturday’s win.

Krimmel also has recruited the right type of players.

“You’ve got to have players who have the mental capacity,” Robinson Fruchtl said. “It’s not knowledge, it’s mental toughness and grit.

“Wagner hit some big-time shots down the stretch, and we answered pretty much every one of them. So yes, we have better athleticism, better talent overall. But I think the mental toughness in Isaiah Blackmon, Keith, those guys, you could see it in their eyes, they weren’t scared.”

For so many years, Saint Francis took the court hoping to win. And it struggled to do so, especially on the road.

That has changed in recent years, though, as Krimmel has guided the program back to a level where it can beat just about anybody in the NEC home or away. A big part of that start came three years ago in the league tourney when the Flash went to Bryant and won.

Two years ago, Saint Francis was the No. 5 seed and went to Mount St. Mary’s and knocked off the fourth seed in the first round.

In a league like the NEC, where the higher seeds host playoff games, the only way to reach the NCAA Tournament is to win conference games on the road — either during the regular season so you can host playoff games, or by going to someone else’s home court and winning in the tournament.

This Saint Francis team believes it can win on the road, and rightfully so, since it has proven that all season.

“As a coach,” Krimmel said, “when you see that belief in a player or as a team, there’s very few things in a locker room more important than the word belief.”

Winning tonight will be very difficult. The Mount beat Saint Francis in both regular-season meetings, 78-72 in Maryland, and with ease, 81-62, in Loretto four weeks ago.

This is a good and deep Red Flash team, though, and all the key young players are playing with an enormous amount of confidence.

Tonight’s game is for all the marbles, and with a national TV audience, these kind of tournament championship games often come down to which team can fight off the nerves, settle in and just play basketball.

The Flash are the underdogs (by 5 points), but they are certainly good enough and poised enough to be able to go in and pull off an upset.

A trip to the Big Dance awaits the winner, and for this very young Saint Francis team, that would be an incredible and historic accomplishment.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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SFU men at Mount St. Mary’s

NEC Tournament, Final

Tipoff: 7 p.m., Knott Arena, Emmitsburg, Md.

Records: Saint Francis (16-15); Mount St. Mary’s (18-15)

Coaches: Rob Krimmel is 60-93 in his fifth season at Saint Francis and overall. Jamion Christian is 81-70 in his fifth season at the Mount and overall.

TV: ESPN2 (Rece Davis play by play, Jim Calhoun color commentary)

Radio: WWGE AM-1400

Probable starters: Saint Francis — G Jamaal King, 5-10 So. (12.2), G Isaiah Blackmon, 6-1 So. (13.6), G Keith Braxton, 6-4 Fr. (13.5), G Randall Gaskins Jr., 6-3 Fr. (8.2), Josh Nebo, 6-8 So. (12.0). Mount St. Mary’s — G Junior Robinson, 5-5 Jr. (13.8), G Elijah Long, 6-0 So. (15.2), G Miles Wilson, 6-5 Fr. (11.2), F Chris Wray, 6-8 Jr. (7.1), F Mawdo Sallah, 6-9 So. (6.3).

Notes: The Mount won the NEC regular-season title with a 14-4 record and is the No. 1 seed, while Saint Francis tied for third at 11-7 and is the No. 4 seed. … What makes the Flash so dangerous is they have four players averaging at least 12 points, one of only about a dozen teams in the country to do that. If one or two players are off, there are enough capable scorers to pick up the slack, including guard Georgios Angelou off the bench. When SFU gets big scoring efforts from four or more players, they are very difficult to beat because so few college teams have that many good defenders. … Mount, however, is a tough matchup for SFU because it does defend well. … Mount clobbered the Flash, 81-62, in Loretto on Feb. 11, with Long going for 25 points and Wilson 20. Braxton led SFU with 14 points, while King and Gaskins had 10 apiece. That was one of the worst offensive performances of the season for SFU, which led the league in scoring at (76.1) and field-goal percentage (46.5). … Mount also won the first meeting at home, 78-72, despite 25 points from Braxton and 23 from King. Blackmon was injured and didn’t play in that game. Mount had five players in double figures, led by Long with 17 and Greg Alexander 16 off the bench. … Nebo has been a monster in the NEC playoffs, blocking eight shots at Wagner and five in a win over Bryant. He needs to stay out of foul trouble to maintain his huge presence inside. … Long was a first-team all-NEC performer for Mount, averaging 15.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists. … Christian, like Krimmel, played for the school he’s now coaching. He led Mount to the NCAA tourney his second season in 2013-14. … Mount is favored by 5 points.

Mirror prediction: Mount St. Mary’s 75, Saint Francis 71

Comment: The higher scoring this gets, the better the chances for the Red Flash, who have a better offense and more scorers. Mount has been tough all season, though, knows how to win close games and is good at home, going 10-4. One thing that could come into play is that Mount is on spring break this week, so the students won’t be as much of a factor.

Mirror prediction record: 23-8

— Cory Giger

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