One year later, the magic of March Madness re-emerges

Pete Thamel
·7-min read

SMITHFIELD, Rhode Island — Amid a near-empty gymnasium at Bryant University on Tuesday night, the shrieks of joy bounced off the walls as a pile of giddy humans collided at midcourt.

Every primal scream. Every sweaty hug. Every unrestrained whoop. They all echoed through the stunned silence of the Chace Athletic Center. As No. 4 Mount St. Mary’s clinched the school’s sixth NCAA bid in the Northeast Conference title game by upsetting No. 2 Bryant, 73-68, the familiar emotion landed differently.

“This is what I do!” star Mount St. Mary’s point guard Damian Chong Qui screamed into a FaceTime call after a few minutes of celebrating with his teammates. “This is what I do!”

And thankfully this March, America will get to see, experience and appreciate the dynamic story of Chong Qui, the out-of-nowhere type we missed when the 2020 NCAA tournament disappeared from the calendar nearly one year ago.

Chong Qui is the 5-foot-8, 155-pound Energizer bunny that powers the delightfully unorthodox band of basketball misfits from Mount St. Mary’s (12-10). His bundle of black hair bounces Fraggle-like behind him as he buzzes about, a visceral pulsating movement for the program’s indispensable pulse. He scored 21 points on Tuesday via a repertoire defined by a bevy of off-balance floaters that makes him appear most comfortable when his body is contorted mid-air.

Mount St. Mary’s point guard Damian Chong Qui celebrates with his teammates after the win. (Credit: David Silverman Photography/DSPics.com)
Mount St. Mary’s point guard Damian Chong Qui celebrates with his teammates after the win. (Credit: David Silverman Photography/DSPics.com)

Chong Qui started high school at 4-foot-9, walked on to Mount St. Mary’s before earning a scholarship and overcame unspeakable personal tragedy to get here. His mother died in a shooting when he was 4, and his father later became confined to a wheelchair after injuries from a different shooting.

“I’ve never really been a person that people look up to,” Chong Qui told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview from a noisy team bus after the game. “That’s something that I would embrace. Adversity is part of life. How you respond to it makes you who you are. I definitely want to be that person that can showcase what can happen when you do [respond], when you don’t let it break you down.”

The sights and sounds of March, spiked with adrenaline, steeped with single-elimination desperation and delivered relentlessly during championship week, are thankfully back. As we near the one-year anniversary of the pandemic-inspired dominoes that shuttered the sports world and indelibly altered daily life, Chong Qui jitterbugged into our consciousness on Tuesday night and reminded us all of what we missed.

“March is a way for us to hear the stories we need but probably wouldn’t have learned,” said George Washington coach Jamion Christian, the former Mount St. Mary’s coach who is a close friend of current coach Dan Engelstad.

Led by the 36-year-old Engelstad, who surged his way into the list of the sport’s bright young coaches, The Mount overcame a roll call of 2020-21 adversity Mad Libs. Three players defected this year, including leading scorer Jalen Gibbs. They had two COVID-related shutdowns that led to a 30-day gap without games. They even took an eight-hour bus trip to play Bryant in Rhode Island in early February only to have the game canceled hours before tip-off.

The Mount really shouldn’t have reached the four-team NEC tournament, as Chong Qui willed them back from seven points down with less than a minute remaining in the game to clinch the final spot. Want long odds? They had a 1.3-percent chance of winning the game that allowed them to reach the NEC tournament.

“We had to prove we belong where we are,” said Nana Opoku, who won the NEC tournament MVP. “We were here to take it.”

Engelstad is a former Division III head coach at Southern Vermont who proudly drove the team van to road games, taking over a 1-24 program and winning 75% of his games over five seasons. His bootstrap career path taught him that necessity is the mother of invention, which is how a coach who made his career running full-court pressure has adapted to a slow-burn style. “I hate the way we play,” Engelstad joked by phone this week. But clearly, so do opponents.

With Chong Qui at point guard and essentially four burly forwards surrounding him most of the game — think coxswain and four tight ends — The Mount will fit right in physically with many teams at the NCAA tournament next week in Indianapolis. (It wouldn’t be surprising if a few of his players – like 6-foot-9, 210-pound Opoku and 6-foot-8, 230-pound Mezie Offurum — got invites to next year’s NFL combine in the same city.)

“Their 3-man could be a five for me, their 4-man could be a five for me and their five-man could be a five,” said Bryant coach Jared Grasso, who was 10-0 at home this season before Tuesday.

Mount St. Mary’s point guard Damian Chong Qui celebrates with his teammates after the win. (Credit: David Silverman Photography/DSPics.com)
Mount St. Mary's overcame long odds to win the Northeast Conference title. (Credit: David Silverman Photography/DSPics.com)

On Tuesday, Engelstad’s crew knew it needed to drag the game into a rock fight instead of a track meet, with Bryant’s offense ranked No. 5 nationally in scoring at 84.7 points per game. The game played out all rocks, no sprints.

With plenty of muscle around him, Chong Qui took care of the rest. He played 40 minutes, with his five assists not doing justice to how he held the game’s pace on a yo-yo all night. He never let The Mount get sped up, and showed a knack for momentum-altering shots. “He’s our leader, he’s our heartbeat,” Engelstad said. “He’s the guy that we lean on.”

That trust is directly related to investment, as Chong Qui worked his way from a walk-on to a scholarship player after his freshman year. When he arrived, Chong Qui struggled to finish at the rim, didn’t shoot 3-pointers particularly well and had a rudimentary understanding of pick-and-roll offense.

He simply worked his way through those deficiencies, as he improved his 3-point shooting by 9% his sophomore year and watched film every day with associate head coach Will Holland to learn pick-and-roll offense. “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever been around,” Engelstad said.

Chong Qui learned via a childhood spent on Baltimore’s basketball courts — The Carmelo Anthony Center, Druid Hill Park, Cloverdale Courts and St. Frances Academy. Why did an undersized kid insist on basketball when his height seemed to prohibit it?

“That’s all I knew,” he said. “Being from Baltimore, basketball is all that you talk about. My father, before he was hurt, all he did was play basketball. He took me wherever he went. Just me and him. In the early years, that’s all I knew.”

So it wasn’t surprising that Chong Qui got emotional FaceTiming his father after the game. No family members were allowed in the gym for the NEC title game, the same restrictions the league held all season.

“He looked like he just finished crying,” Chong Qui said. “He told me he was proud of me and that he loved me. We have a real close relationship. That’s my best friend.”

As the tears of a lifetime bond revealed themselves on Tuesday night, Damian Chong Qui reminded us of the stories we forgot we needed. Here’s hoping he and The Mount win enough to keep on allowing his story to inspire.

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