NCCU: Hard-nosed Eagles have eyes on MEAC title prize
Even as N.C. Central was dismantling Howard 92-46 Wednesday in the MEAC Tournament, the Eagles were constantly telling each other that they were hungry for more, a Bison player said after the game.
The Eagles return to the Norfolk Scope Arena for today’s semifinals (6 p.m., 99.9 HD-3 The Ticket) in which top-seeded NCCU will meet No.4 Norfolk State.
NCCU’s opponent is going to be in for a long night, Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry said.
“It’s hard to teach a team to play 40 minutes,” Nickelberry said, adding that NCCU does exactly that. “When you add talent and will together, it creates another situation.”
The Eagles played only one game in last year’s MEAC Tournament and were done, dumped in the quarterfinals by N.C. A&T. NCCU was the No. 2 seed and the Eagles were expected to hang around longer than that.
NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said he doesn’t believe his team underachieved last season. The Eagles won 22 games and lost just once in MEAC play, something that would be celebrated in other leagues, he said.
But only the MEAC Tournament champion is guaranteed an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“Our conference is 13 teams, and I like to say it’s 13 dogs chasing one bone,” Moton said. “So the only team that’s celebrated is the team that catches that bone.”
That bone still has meat on it, and the Eagles are playing like predators, Howard’s Prince Okoroh said.
“They left no gaps in their defenses. None of them took a break. They made sure they tried to get every rebound. They were calling out plays before we were calling them out,” Okoroh said. “They were switching their defenses constantly, so every time you think you adjusted to a defense, they threw another one at you.”
Yes, defense — it has created a culture of toughness for NCCU basketball, Moton said.
“There’s no out of bounds in practice, and I don’t call any fouls,” Moton said. “That’s where we hang our hats.”
Howard freshman James Daniel led the MEAC in scoring with 21 points per game during the regular season. He scored 15 against NCCU in the tournament, going 3 of 15 from the field, getting most of his points from free throws.
“They were in it to win it on the defensive side,” Daniel said. “Their intensity on defense just took over.”
The Eagles shared the ball so well on offense that defending them was a nightmare, Okoroh said.
NCCU isn’t very impressive on film in terms of size, Nickelberry said. It’s just that the Eagles show up in arenas and coliseums with a tremendous motor about them, and it’s something that particularly has come with the maturation of NCCU seniors Jeremy Ingram and Emanuel Chapman, he said.
“I even went back four years ago and watched them as freshmen. I watched how hard they didn’t play,” Nickelberry said. “I’m impressed with how Chapman has developed, how Ingram has developed.”
NCCU’s seniors understand their roles — that’s a big deal, Howard freshman Tyler Stone said.
Howard had nine freshman and one senior on its roster. NCCU has six seniors.
A year ago, NCCU was immature, Moton said. Most of the players had never played with each other before, and Ingram and Chapman found themselves in prominent roles for the Eagles for the first time, NCCU senior Antonin Galaya said.
“This year, we knew how to play with each other,” Galaya said. “We just felt better with one another, and we’re close.
“We all regret the fact that we didn’t win last year. I think it was a big disappointment for our returners. It stayed with me, and I’m sure it stayed with everybody else during the summer, a feeling that we didn’t accomplish something. Coming back this year, the main thing on the board was we can’t end feeling the same way this year.”