Despite NCAA loss, NCCU makes mark on national scene
America finally got to really meet N.C. Central this season.
Of course, the Eagles have been around for a while.
But when you’re NCCU and sharing Tobacco Road with basketball behemoths like Duke and North Carolina, there’s a premium on elbow room.
“You’re constantly fighting for respect,” NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said. “You’ve got Warren Buffett probably five miles to your left and then you’ve got Bill Gates probably 10 miles to your right, and then you have N.C. State 20 miles away. That Tobacco Road thing, unfortunately, often times we get lost in the shuffle, but we fight for our respect and hopefully people will take notice and understand that we play great basketball at North Carolina Central, as well.”
NCCU put a bow on its season at the AT&T Center on Friday during the second round of the NCAA Tournament, losing 93-75 to Iowa State.
It was NCCU’s first time in the Division I NCAA Tournament. The Eagles were a No. 14 seed in the East Region, Iowa State a No. 3 seed.
NCCU started playing Division I basketball during the 2007-08 season but officially became a Division I program in 2011 when it rejoined the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
NCCU was a founding member of the MEAC when the league competed on the Division II level.
“It’s like we are here now. We are official. It’s been a beautiful thing,” NCCU forward Karamo Jawara said.
NCCU this season was the regular-season champion of the MEAC, and the Eagles got into the Big Dance after winning the MEAC Tournament. NCCU never before had won either a Division I regular-season title or a Division I conference tournament title.
“We accomplished a lot,” NCCU senior Alfonzo Houston said after the Iowa State game. “We really ain’t got nothing to hold our head down against. All in all, that wasn’t our best performance. We could have done better, but we accomplished a lot. Nothing to be mad about.”
The game clock was on its way to zero when Moton shared a long embrace with Houston and NCCU senior Jeremy Ingram, the MEAC player of the year.
“He told us to keep our head up. We accomplished a lot this year,” Houston said. “We had a nice group of seniors, and they’ll be well missed.”
NCCU senior point guard Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman departs as the top set-up man in school history with 617 assists.
Ingram and Chapman hold dear places in Moton’s heart. They had no really strong opportunities to play college basketball until Moton showed them some love. They returned the favor by working on their games and remaining loyal to NCCU.
“They made me look a lot better than I am,” Moton said. “They have elevated this program, and I wouldn’t take two guards in the country over these two. They fought tooth and nail. It hasn’t been an easy journey for neither one, but the reason I’m up here is because of these two.”
The Eagles were 28-6 this season.
“Right now, it’s kind of hard for me to swallow this and give out how proud I am of our accomplishments,” Chapman said. “But everything we did, we did it together. Defensively, offensively, on and off the floor, we were a family, and we’re still a family.”
“When you have a dream and you have a focus and you stick together and you sacrifice yourself for the betterment of that team, it’s amazing,” Moton said “It’s amazing what a group can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit. Like, these guys really don’t care who gets the credit, and that’s what, I tell you, it’s about.
“I didn’t make a shot. I didn’t grab a rebound. I didn’t throw an assist. It was those guys along with the other seniors.”
The loss to Iowa State was also the last college basketball game for NCCU seniors Ebuka Anyaorah, Antonin Galaya and Reggie Groves.
Next season is on the way, but Jawara can’t get Iowa State out of his head.
“Right now, I’m just the worst loser you can find,” Jawara said. “I don’t care if it’s Uno, NBA2K or a basketball game, I don’t like losing. I don’t care who it’s against. Now, I know we accomplished a lot, but the only thing fresh in my memory is that score right there. I’m going to get over it, but, right now, it just happened. I can’t just look past it.”
Moton told the Eagles not to define their season by the Iowa State game, Jawara said.
“We shouldn’t be thinking about just this game. We should look over the whole season at what we accomplished and what we’ve done for this program,” Jawara said. “We definitely laid a foundation. That bar is raised up. I’m going to expect more from everyone, even the transfers, the people on the team right now. That bar is raised now.”
It’s the sort of thing that certainly won’t do anything to hurt recruiting when it’s time to beat the bushes for talent, Moton said.
“We’re gonna go out and see what we can do,” Moton said.