First-place Eagles have full attention of MEAC foes

Jan. 31, 2014 @ 10:30 PM

The target on N.C. Central’s back got bigger Monday night.

NCCU’s home win over Morgan State landed the Eagles in first place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Last season, NCCU coach LeVelle Moton, who once played for the Eagles, talked about his alma mater being the school that all the other historically black colleges and universities love to beat. For whatever reason, everybody just wants a piece of NCCU, Moton said.

Once the hunters, the Eagles have assumed the role of the hunted, particularly now as they sit atop the MEAC.

“Every night is going to be a fight,” NCCU senior Jeremy Ingram said. “Everyone gives us their best shot, so every night we’ve got to come out with the same intensity as we did with Morgan. Whether it’s the top team or the bottom team, we’ve got to come out with the same fire.”

Howard, tied for seventh in the 13-team MEAC, today gets the first crack at knocking the Eagles off their perch (4 p.m., NCCUEaglePride.com).

Waiting on the Eagles in the nation’s capital will be the MEAC’s leading scorer, Howard’s James Daniel (5-11, 165). He averages 20.8 points per game and is the No. 20 scorer in Division I basketball.

Dangerous from distance, Daniel is shooting 42.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc, the best clip in the MEAC. He’s made 54 3-pointers.

Daniel scored 33 and 31 points in back-to-back January wins against Maryland Eastern Shore and Florida A&M, respectively. That helps explain why he’s been the MEAC’s rookie of the week five times.

On Monday, Daniel was 14 of 15 from the free-throw line against Bethune-Cookman, but he missed all 10 of his shots from the field and had eight turnovers, and the Bison lost. Daniel’s teammates weren’t much better, collectively shooting 26.8 percent from the field and committing 23 turnovers.

Howard (5-16, 3-3 MEAC) is next to last in the league in scoring, averaging 61.5 points per game.

NCCU is allowing the fewest buckets in the conference, giving up 60.2 points per game. The Eagles have been locking down on the defensive end and forcing teams to shoot low percentages. That’s where the Eagles hang their hard hats, and that’s the game plan against Howard, NCCU forward Karamo Jawara said.

“We’ve got to go down there with a mentality of defense, and we’re going to be good,” Jawara said.

That Howard crowd sure does keep a lot of fuss in Burr Gymnasium, though, Moton said.

“It’s one of the toughest places to play in the MEAC, and they get loud,” Moton said. “Last time we were there, I think, they threw some Pepsis at us. That wasn’t very sportsmanlike, but we expect nothing but hostile environments from this point on.

“If we do what he have to do, we can keep the crowd out of the game. But I’m sure it’ll be rocking in there. It’ll be the band in there, and everyone from southeast D.C. will be there.”

NCCU (14-5, 5-1 MEAC) has won 19 straight games at home and are on a six-game winning streak overall. The Eagles have won ugly, beaten archrival N.C. A&T in a blowout and emerged victorious several times when their leading scorer wasn’t hitting on much. A Nov. 20 win against N.C. State earned NCCU its first win against an Atlantic Coast Conference school.

Moton’s not convinced. He said he needs to see more from his squad.

“Just consistency across the board,” Moton said. “I just need to see more consistent fight.”

NCCU didn’t prepare well heading into the Morgan State game, Moton said. The Eagles still won, though. Moton took the blame for NCCU’s poor preparation. At the same time, the way the Eagles came from behind to beat the Bears was revealing, Moton said.

“Now, I don’t want a bunch of these games taking place. But I’m just proud because I got to see the hearts of my young men a little more,” Moton said. “You’re not going to see the hearts of your young men when you’re up 20 and you’re throwing alley-oops and things like that, and you’re dunking. Or when you’re up 40 against your rival, that’s not the hearts of your men. We’ve got a quote on our wall that says, ‘Adversity introduces a man to himself.’”

NCCU concluded its comeback against Morgan State with a free throw from Jawara that brought the final score to 53-52. It was an adverse situation, and the Eagles thrived in it.

“I really like ’em — sometimes,” Moton said about his team. “From here, we control our own destiny.”

NOTES — Moton is a coach who adheres to the next-game approach. Shortly after NCCU beat Morgan State on Monday, Moton said, “I just found out we play Howard on Saturday. I’m pretty simple. I’m more of a next-day guy. I try not to get that far ahead into looking at standings and things of that nature. I just know if we come out and we do what we’re supposed to do, we don’t have to worry about checking our phones to see the scores of other games.”