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Top of the Mount
Phelan wins 800th game, earns 2nd trip to NCAAs
Posted: Tuesday March 02, 1999 12:53 AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- No one talked about it and everybody claimed they didn't even think about it. Even if that wasn't true, there was another reason for all the celebrating after Jim Phelan's 800th victory.
The 72-56 win over Central Connecticut State on Monday night came in the championship game of the Northeast Conference Tournament and earned the Mounties a berth in the NCAA's field of 64, the second in Phelan's 45 seasons at the small Catholic college in Maryland.
"Maybe it was a combination of No. 800 and the NEC tournament and the right to go the NCAA that made this bigger than 1995 which was a great experience," Phelan said of his other NCAA appearance. "I think it was the combination of all that that made this a little bit bigger."
Senior Greg Bethel, who finished with 16 points, said the players didn't talk about helping Phelan become the fourth coach in college basketball history to reach 800 wins.
"We didn't even think about it," he said. "After the game I congratulated him on it but I was happier for him and us that we won it all and get to go on."
Phelan joined Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp and Clarence "Big House" Gaines in the exclusive 800-win club. He and his famed bow tie got there with some solid defense as the Mounties held the fourth-seeded Blue Devils (19-13) to one field goal over the final eight minutes and to 29 percent shooting (20-for-68) for the game.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Mount St. Mary's players and some fans fell into a huge pile at midcourt, while Phelan, who will turn 70 later this month, slowly walked over to the Central Connecticut State bench to shake hands with coach Howie Dickenman and the players.
"If there is a consolation to losing, it's losing to a gentleman like Jim Phelan," Dickenman said.
Phelan, who has a career record of 800-442, was presented the game ball before he and his team accepted their awards and cut down the nets at the Spiro Sports Center at Wagner College.
"Hopefully there will be an 801 and an 802, but let's not even think about that right now," Phelan said.
Gregory Harris led Mount St. Mary's with 20 points, while freshman center Melvin Whitaker had 10 points, seven rebounds and eight blocked shots in a foul-plagued 25 minutes.
"Coach didn't let us talk about it," Whitaker said of No. 800. "And we didn't."
Charron Watson had 21 points for Central Connecticut State, which enjoyed its first winning season since moving to Division I in 1986. CCSU also completed one of the best turnarounds in NCAA history after going 4-22 last season.
"I'm very proud of this team's accomplishments this season," Dickenman said. "I'm very disappointed for them after such a year-long effort. But they took away our offense tonight."
Watson's layup with 8:03 left brought the Blue Devils within 52-51. But that's when the Mounties turned up the defense, allowing only Rick Mickens' rebound basket with 5:10 left and three free throws.
Harris' third 3-pointer of the game, with 6:56 left, gave the Mounties a 57-51 lead, and his dunk with 4:37 left made it 59-53. Whitaker's dunk on a fast break made it 63-53 with 1:36 left and sewed up Phelan's historic win and the school's berth in the field of 64.
Whitaker, who served two years in jail for slashing a University of Virginia football player with a box-cutter during a recruiting visit there, had three fouls in the first half and picked up his fourth with 11:12 to play. Phelan put him back in the game with 4:19 left and he came up with two field goals and three more blocked shots.
"A lot of the fouls could have gone either way, and the ones I did get clean got in their minds," Whitaker said. "I'm still adjusting to being in officiating situations, period."
Phelan said he doesn't care who the Mounties draw in the NCAA tournament.
"There's one school nobody particularly wants to meet and their name doesn't have to be mentioned," he said referring to top-ranked Duke. "If things go right, we can go out and play with most teams."
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