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Matt Norlander

Welcome to The Dance, Robert Morris Colonials

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e doing something a little different with this one seeing that I was actually at the game last night.

HAMDEN, Conn. -- The Northeast Conference is unlike many other mid- and low-major conferences for this reason: it doesn't facilitate dynasties.

Robert Morris claimed its seventh trip to the NCAA tournament Wednesday night and its second straight auto bid. In the process, it became the first conference school since Rider in 1994 to do it in consecutive years.

So why did it happen?

"More than most teams at this level, we really care about and focus on the defense," RMU coach Mike Rice said.

And the defense is what won them the game, a 52-50 outcome that was much more enthralling than that score would indicate.

Quinnipiac had two shots in the final minute to win the game on its home floor - where it had not lost all season - but a tough pull-up shot from James Johnson with 44 seconds to go hit the front iron and a screen-and-shoot play, attempted by James Feldeine, was partially blocked by Dallas Green.

After the shot-gone-awry came back down and deflected off of the Bobcats' Jonathan Cruz's leg, Quinnipac's chances to dance had about expired. QU coach Tom Moore nervously flicked his finger against his chin as Colonials freshman guard Karon Abraham shot two free throws in the final seconds. Abraham went 0 for 2, but the subsequent half-court desperation heave from Johnson wasn't even flirtatious enough to hit the backboard, yet alone the rim.

"I was pleased with the last play. I was happy it was in his hands," Moore said of the Feldeine shot. "There's no two kids in the entire league I'd rather have running that action. It gives us great options and put sour two best players in great scoring positions."

But the game was just as much won by Robert Morris as it was lost by Quinnipiac. Before Abraham, an 87 percent foul shooter, missed both at the stripe with a two-point lead, Green, a shaky foul shooter, sank both of his.

"I wasn't nervous," Abraham said. "There's a lot of trust in this team."

The Colonials, who started the season 1-4 and didn't get their record to above .500 until Jan. 14, never let the frenzied environment faze them. Truly. Coming out of the second half, the Bobcats had all the life and practically all the fans on their side. For any other team in this league - all the ones without the experience and credentials of recently having made an NCAA tournament in the previous season - it could've been too much to handle.

In fact, it almost was for Rice, who got very emotional with his disagreement over some of the calls in the final minutes. He was so hot that Green wrangled him and pushed him back toward the seats on the bench.

"That was the first time any of us had to grab coach," Green said, and he and his coach had a good laugh about it afterward.

Robert Morris wasn't the best team in the NEC this year - Quinnipiac was, really - but it got the best win to represent the conference yet again. The NEC does it right: giving higher-seeded teams the home-court advantage and a better chance at winning in the conference tournament as a reward for the top regular-season record. But that doesn't stop a hungry team that knows what the NCAAs feels like from eking one out.

When the game was over, the RMU supporting section - which was scattered behind the team's bench, maybe 40 deep in a crowd of 3,000 - trickled onto Quinnipiac's court as drunken and once-delirious Connecticut kids quickly filed out of the TD Banknorth SportsCenter.

In the past two years, we've seen a colonization begin in the Northeast conference. The Colonials, fittingly, are the ones doing it.

The Vitals:

»Record: 23-11, 15-3 NEC
»Team colors: blue and white with red
»We're thinking: a 16-seed
»KenPom ranking: 104
»RPI: 188
»Best win: @ Cleveland State (16-17)
»Worst loss: @ Albany (7-25)
»Notable stat: Karon Abraham shoots well for a freshman. He's had a lot of weight put on his shoulders, but Abraham hits his 3-pointers 44 percent of the time. What's more impressive is his aggressive shooting form. He needs to fire that way, one would guess, because of his tiny frame.
»Most recent tournament history (seven total appearances):
-2009 (15-seed): L first round to Michigan State, 77-62.

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