NEWARK – Mount Pleasant stepped onto the Carpenter Center floor Sunday afternoon and it seemed familiar and felt like home.
Now comes the harder part for the Green Knights, who’ll try to extend their stay.
Mount Pleasant never trailed in its quarterfinal matchup with Smyrna, playing with poise and purpose in a 53-45 victory.
Coach Lisa Sullivan was not surprised, because those were exactly the attributes Mount Pleasant had not exhibited in a semifinal loss to Salesianum here last year.
She knew they’d be better for the experience.
“I think we got here and nerves got us,” she said. “We were a little bit in awe. I think we held back.”
That was not the case in Mount Pleasant’s return, which was full-speed ahead as the Green Knights try to fill a historic void. Mount Pleasant has not won the championship since the first state boys basketball tournament in 1967.
The Blue Hen Conference champion and No. 4 seed, Mount Pleasant (20-3) advanced to Thursday’s 8 p.m. semifinal against top-seeded Sanford, which upended Milford. The Green Knights lost to Sanford in their only other title-game appearance in 1992, which happened to be Stan Waterman’s first year as Sanford coach.
Raheim Burnett scored 13 points on his 18th birthday and KVonn Cramer, a 6-foot-5 freshman, supplied 10 points and five rebounds for Mount Pleasant.
“Last year we played passive,” Burnett said of No. 2-seeded Mount Pleasant’s 60-49 semifinal loss to No. 6 Sallies, the eventual champion. “We didn’t want to make mistakes on the big stage. But this year, we played in a lot of big games . . . So all we talked about was when we get there, play hard, leave it all out on the floor, and that’s what we did tonight. It felt like a regular game, like we were back at Mount Pleasant.”
Up 24-15 at halftime, the Green Knights’ lead grew as large as 10 in the third quarter and 12 in the fourth, though Smyrna kept battling. Up 47-35 with 4:15 left after DeJon Backus scored inside, Mount Pleasant didn’t make another field goal. But the Green Knights converted enough free throws and Smyrna couldn’t sustain a comeback.
Nineteen turnovers certainly hurt Smyrna (Mount Pleasant had 13). Though Smyrna shot slightly better — 37.5 percent (18-for-48) to Mount Pleasant’s 34.4 (20-for-58) — the Green Knights got to the basket with more regularity.
“Take good shots,” said Sullivan, who felt her team did that most of the time. “That’s essentially what every playoff game comes down to. Be smart . . . If it’s not there take the extra pass and set your teammate up and you come out on the winning side more times than not.”
Mount Pleasant finished the first quarter on a 7-0 run and led 13-5. They quickly built their advantage to double digits at 18-7 before Smyrna scored on three straight possessions to get back within four.
But the Eagles didn’t make a field goal on six tries in the final 4:22 of the second period and went into halftime down 24-15. They also lost senior Jerry Williams 36 seconds before halftime when he was called for a flagrant foul under the Mount Pleasant basket and ejected.
Ja’vier Worthy had 15 points and six rebounds to lead No. 5-seeded Smyrna (18-4). Caleb Matthews scored 10 points.
“It starts with Mount,” Smyrna coach Andrew Mears said of what made things so difficult for the Eagles. “In my eyes, they’re one of the favorites to win this whole thing. We knew coming in it was going to be a challenge and we never really got into a groove. A couple things went against us that made it tough. Our effort was where it needed to be. We cared about it. Our guys never quit but I don’t think the ball went through the hoop enough for us.”
Contact Kevin Tresolini at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.