Jamion Christian tried to ignore the commotion, at first.
The Mount St. Mary's men's basketball head coach was mid-conversation when he entered an Emmittsburg, Md., restaurant for a lunch meeting last month. It took him a beat to realize the standing ovation was for him.
Christian -- the architect of a program fresh off 20 wins, Northeast Conference regular-season and tournament titles and a spirited NCAA scare of No. 1 overall seed Villanova -- froze in the moment. Should he start shaking hands? Maybe riff a quick speech? He settled for a wave and a smile.
"If we're going to do this a lot," Christian chuckled, "I've got to figure out a way to handle that situation better, because I just wasn't expecting it."
It's a good problem to have, of course. Christian and his Mountaineers have earned the extra attention, whether it's local, regional or national.
Mount St. Mary's stumbled to a 1-11 start against a torturous nonconference schedule but rebounded to finish 20-16 and produce a history-making season.
The Mountaineers earned the right to host the NEC Tournament championship for the first time and claimed the title with a victory against St. Francis (Pa.) before an ESPN2 audience and a standing-room crowd at Knott Arena. They held off New Orleans, 67-66, March 14 in a play-in game that kicked off the NCAA Tournament and earned them a matchup with Villanova in Buffalo two days later.
Although a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1, Christian's players told reporters they believed they could hang with the defending national champions. They promptly backed up that confidence, leading for the first 18 minutes before the Wildcats pulled away in the second half to win, 76-56.
Afterward, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said his club was outplayed. The disappointment in the Mount St. Mary's locker room said a lot about the job Christian has done since taking over at his alma mater in 2012.
"It's a special group of guys that I think just have an inner hunger," said Christian, who turns 35 April 18. "They believed we could win it all, and we didn't do that. So we still came up short of what we all believed we could do."
Yet, the positive vibes are unmistakable.
Mount St. Mary's led the NEC in attendance by a wide margin at 2,269 fans per game, boosted by three packed home crowds during the conference tournament. They were rewarded with a court-storming after the Mountaineers rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to beat St. Francis, 71-61, in the conference tournament title game and clinch a second NCAA berth in four years and fifth overall.
The program's last taste of March Madness in 2014 ended quickly with a First Four loss. This time, it was able to stay in the spotlight a bit longer and reap the rewards.
Guard Junior Robinson, the shortest player in the NCAA Tournament at 5-foot-5, trended on social media after posting a team-high 23 points during the win against New Orleans. The Mountaineers' plucky performance against mighty Villanova got the web buzzing again.
During the NCAA run, Mount St. Mary's reported an average of 64,200 Twitter impressions per day, up from 4,100 during the same period last year. The 5,203,227 hits on the official athletic website that week were nearly four million more than 2016.
Behind the scenes, athletic officials are already working to make sure newfound interest translates into increased season-ticket sales and donations to the Mount Club.
"It absolutely has a tremendous effect on all aspects of the university," athletic director Lynne Robinson said. "It helps to galvanize way beyond just sports fans."
Christian would rather the focus stay on his players, but his youthful enthusiasm, fun-to-watch system dubbed "Mayhem" and fearless approach to scheduling (West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas were early-season opponents) garnered a slew of positive press.
Recently, Christian was mentioned as a candidate for a handful of open jobs elsewhere, including Georgetown. At least for now, the coach is content to stay in the Catoctin Mountains and keep building.
The future seems bright. The Mountaineers are set to bring all five starters back, including leading scorer Elijah Long (John Carroll).
Christian has done well recruiting in the region with six Maryland natives on this year's roster. Another banner in Knott Arena and fresh March memories should help his sales pitch going forward.
The challenge now is to keep folks talking about the Mountaineers.
"We've kind of put our place on the map, but we've done that before in our past," Christian said. "The key now is being consistent year-in-and-year-out and being able to put ourselves in that category, so that people don't just see us as a program that pops up once in a while, they see us as a really consistent competitor that's really trying to move forward and really be excellent."
Issue 232: April 2017