DAYTON, Ohio – America – and especially Villanova – meet Mount St. Mary’s Junior Robinson. All 5-5 of him.
The smallest Division I player in America sat by his locker Tuesday night, having just carried his team in the First Four with 23 points and a critical late shot, and discussed life as a little guy.
“All my life, that’s all I heard. Too short for this, too short for that. I got told I would never be here. Never. My dad told me every day that I’d be somebody one day. Now I’m here.”
Here, meant Dayton Tuesday night, when the Mountaineers slipped past New Orleans 67-66 in an awfully entertaining game for a couple of 16-seeds. And now, here means Buffalo Thursday. Villanova is waiting with Josh Hart, who might play guard just like Robinson does, but is a full foot taller. Robinson will come up to the Villanova on Hart’s uniform. He's used to it.
“It’s fun playing against the odds,” Robinson said. “It’s all about heart. Height has nothing to do with it. If you come out and show you have the biggest heart and the most passion for the game, you’ll be fine.”
His teammates have noticed that.
“It’s like David and Goliath basically. He’s unique,” backcourt running mate Elijah Long said. “I’ve never met a 5-5 guy who can, first of all, dunk.”
“When you’re a smaller guy, you’re naturally going to have a chip on your shoulder and just want to go out and show the world the things you can do,” coach Jamion Christian said. “But when you’re a smaller guy who shoots 40 percent from the three, can dunk, windmill dunk and do these other things, the chip comes with some talent.”
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Let’s go back to the little guy, who was hugging one of the young kids in the Mount St. Mary’s traveling party in the locker room (and wasn’t all that much taller) and ask about his first dunk.
“Sophomore in high school. I was about 5-3. It was amazing. One day we were messing around after practice and threw up, and I dunked it. I thought, `Oh my goodness.’ Everyone else was shocked. They kept me doing it over and over.
“I’ve got it down pat now.”
His mother is 5-3, his father 5-8. So his DNA suggested strongly he would not be growing up to play power forward. But he had a basketball in his hands when he was four-years-old.
“I’d be out in the front yard, running up putting up my own goal. All the times we had, just for this moment right here.”The big moment Tuesday came with New Orleans ahead 64-63 and 1:40 left. Mount St. Mary’s badly needed a basket. Robinson took over, zigged and zagged looking for space, as the Privateers sought to keep him covered. It was like trying to corner a rabbit. He finally pulled up and lifted a shot that had to go or else big trouble for the Mountaineers.
“We needed a bucket. Coach told me to keep it, and I went and got one,” he said.
A lot of his lofted jumpers have more hang time than NFL punters, but when you’re always shooting over someone taller, it happens.
Mount St. Mary’s earned a flight to Buffalo, barely.
“Today we were able to find a way to be a little bit better,” Christian said. “In the month of March, that’s all that matters.”
This instinct for survival comes from a team that started the season 1-11, thanks mostly to a non-conference gauntlet that included West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas. You may notice all are in the NCAA Tournament bracket.
“I believed in these guys from day one,” Christian said. “We wouldn’t have put that schedule together unless I believed in their ability to recover.”
So now, Villanova. Several players said they had watched the Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer give the Wildcats the national championship last April and would never have imagined that one year later, they’d be Villanova’s next tournament opponent.
“I wouldn’t have guessed out of 100 times that we were going to play Villanova, but dreams come true, and it is Match Madness,” Long said. “So this is part of the madness.”
Long didn’t know the record of No. 16 seeds against No. 1 seeds, but said he wanted to be told. How about 0-128?
“That’s a great record to beat. We can beat a No. 1, it can be 1-and-128. At the end of the day, we all play basketball. It’s the same size ball, same size net.”
But not the same size guard.
“We’re living the dream right now,” Robinson said.
Who wants to be the one to tell him it has to end?