DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — D.J. Evans is charitably listed at 5-foot-9. His coach and teammates tease him that he looks a foot shorter.
Yet he stood awfully tall for Albany on Tuesday night.
Evans scored 22 points, including two clinching free throws with 12.6 seconds left, to lead the Great Danes to their first NCAA tournament victory, 71-64 over Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four.
Evans, an often overlooked component in Albany’s lineup, belied his height with nine rebounds to go with three assists.
“He’s about 4-foot-8, so he’s really impressive,” laughed his running mate at guard, Peter Hooley, who had 20 points. “I don’t think there’s another 4-8 guard who could go in there and get that many boards. He did what he needed to do to get this win.”
It was a signature victory for the America East Conference tournament champs, who had come up empty in three previous trips to the big dance.
“It means a lot,” said an emotional coach Will Brown. “There’s no better feeling. Like I told our kids, we’re going to be in the history books at the University of Albany forever.”
The Great Danes (19-14) advance to meet overall No. 1 seed and top-ranked Florida on Thursday in Orlando. But that was a concern for another day.
It was a wild game of incredible turnarounds, with the Great Danes bolting to leads of 13-0 and 21-2, only to have The Mount (16-17) bounce back with a 21-2 run of its own to pull even.
Hooley, one of three Australians on the Albany roster, hit two free throws with 2:43 remaining to stretch the lead to 65-62. After Julian Norfleet countered with a bucket, Hooley again pounded his way to the basket and lofted a shot over a defender for a 67-64 lead at the 2-minute mark.
It stayed that way with the teams missing big shots. Rashad Whack and Norfleet each missed potential tying 3s – Whack’s rolled almost inside the rim and then bounded away.
“When it hit the rim, I thought it was going to go in,” Whack said softly.
Evans was fouled with 12.6 seconds left and hit both shots to increase the lead to five points – and out of reach of another long-range shot.
Evans was most proud of his rebounding.
“They shot a lot of 3s and there were a lot of long rebounds,” he said with a grin. “I was just at the right place at the right time.”
After playing two years of junior-college ball and sitting behind a senior starter a year ago, Brown told Evans his day would eventually come.
“He’s the happiest kid in the world right now,” Brown said.
Norfleet then missed another 3 and Albany finally could call itself an NCAA winner.
Will Miller, a freshman who came off the bench, led The Mount with 21 points, all on 3s. But he didn’t get off a shot in the last 3:32 after making back-to-back 3s to draw the Mountaineers within a point.
Whack added 16 points and Sam Prescott 14 for The Mount, which electrified the crowd at the University of Dayton with 3-point fireworks. The Mountaineers hit 12 of 37 shots behind the arc to time and again come back from deficits.
The glut of 3-pointers was nothing new for the Mountaineers. They came in with an offense heavily dependent on shots behind the arc. They averaged 9 of 25 on 3-pointers coming in.
Albany had made some racket in the NCAAs before, but had never come out on top. In 2006, the Great Danes led by double figures in the second half but lost to Connecticut, 72-59. A year later, they held their own before falling Virginia, 84-57. A year ago, as a 15 seed, they battled Duke throughout before coming up short, 73-61.
Mount St. Mary’s was also making its fourth NCAA appearance, although it had won once before – a victory over Coppin State in 2008 in the old format of an opening-round leading into the big tournament.
Albany led 35-31 at the break, but that didn’t tell the story of one bizarre half.
The Mount couldn’t do much right for the first 8-plus minutes. The Great Danes raced to a 13-0 lead. The Mountaineers missed misfired on their first 11 shots from the field, including six behind the arc.
“A lot of teams would have folded,” said Mount coach Jamion Christian. “Our guys didn’t do that. They took the punch and they bounced back.”
Things quickly turned around, with Mount going on an 18-0 run.
Like a couple of sparring partners, the teams kept trading flurries in the second half. Down 45-41, Albany went on a 10-1 run. Trailing 60-53, the Mountaineers scored nine of the next 12 capped by Miller’s two 3s to cut the deficit to a point.
That set the stage for Evans to play like a giant.
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