Eagles find closeness off the court helps them on the court
This is the time of year when college basketball coaches shorten their rotations, limiting playing time to starters and key reserves.
There simply is no room for experimentation during the postseason when teams emerging on the wrong side of scoreboards have to pack up their jerseys and sneakers until the next season.
But there was N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton playing every single one of his guys Wednesday during the quarterfinals of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament at Norfolk Scope Arena.
It’s spot-on to conclude that the reason NCCU will go after its 19th consecutive win tonight has nearly everything to do with those reserves slam dunking their egos.
NCCU is rolling because the Eagles like each other — they really like each other.
“It’s just our bond,” NCCU senior Jeremy Ingram said. “We always say that we’re bothers, but we really mean it. It’s not just a saying.”
Ingram became the team’s starting shooting guard last season after Ebuka Anyaorah broke his foot.
This season, Ingram was the MEAC’s player of the year.
Anyaorah, a redshirt senior, spent a lot of time on the bench watching Ingram do his thing.
“It’s tough. It’s not something that you want to do,” said Anyaorah, who transferred to NCCU after playing at a higher-profile Georgia program. “It’s not something that’s natural. Naturally, you want to whine. You want to have an attitude of resentfulness.”
But Anyaorah has approached this season with an attitude of gratitude. The NCAA allowed him another year of eligibility due to his injury. Good thing, too, because his plan to play professional basketball overseas didn’t appear promising.
“I had a foot in the real world already. I was already starting to think what would I do, and it didn’t look so good,” said Anyaorah, who at the beginning of the season vowed not to take his final college run for granted. “I’m going to make the most of it, because I’m not even supposed to have it.”
When NCCU played Savannah State shortly before the MEAC Tournament, Moton inserted Anyaorah into the game with 3:53 left in the contest. Anyaorah hadn’t played all night, and NCCU was clinging to a 44-43 lead. It was not garbage time.
“A lot of the bigs were getting in foul trouble, so I kind of had a sense that I was going to get called soon,” Anyaorah said. “I had to be ready.”
He was. Anyaorah made four free throws, two of them in overtime. NCCU won the nationally televised game 64-57.
“He came in and made a tremendous defensive effort, big rebound, and he knocked down all of his free throws,” Moton said. “He’s always been a good defender. He’s got a lot of playing experience, and he’s capable. He’s more than capable.”
NCCU senior Antonin Galaya is a capable player, too. Just ask Ingram.
“You can ask Jeremy, I foul him in practice all day,” Galaya said. “I’m trying to be as physical as I can. I’m talking trash every day. I’m really trying to push those guys, because their games are Saturday (and) Monday. We’ve got Tuesday off. My game is from Wednesday to Friday. That’s when I’ve got to make sure that I push those guys.
Seeing from the bench how they’re producing, I think I’m doing my part.”
The proof is in the win column. NCCU is 26-5 and would go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history if the team wins the MEAC Tournament.
“We’ve just got to see the bigger picture,” Anyaorah said.
It helps that the Eagles like each other, NCCU senior Alfonzo Houston said.
And it’s not just basketball with these guys. They’re always clowning around with each other,
NCCU redshirt senior Reggie Groves said. Or they’re watching movies together, playing video games, he said.
“That bond. Trust is a big thing,” Groves said. “When you trust someone, that goes a long way. And we trust each other, so that helps us out on the floor.”
“This is the closest team I’ve ever been part of,” Galaya said. “That really makes a big impact. I don’t think people realize that, but what happens off the court really relates to what happens on the court.”
Galaya said he can’t be mad about his limited role during games when the guys playing in front of him are producing.
College basketball is a results-oriented business.
“You play the game of basketball to win,” Galaya said. “Whether you play 30 minutes or play two minutes like myself, at the end of the day, you play to win. And right now, I’m in a position where I don’t play much, but I win.”