Mike Bernard gathered his North Carolina Central team in the locker room prior to the 1989 NCAA Division II men’s basketball title game. He talked about how proud the team should be to represent the university and the city of Durham on a national stage.
Then he closed his talk this way: “We’ve come this far. We’ve got 40 minutes left. Let’s complete our task.”
N.C. Central not only completed the task, the Eagles departed the Springfield (Mass.) Civic Center with the most dominant performance in NCAA Division II championship game history. The 27-point margin of victory over Southeast Missouri State remains the title-game record.
“It was an incredible journey to take 13 young men and to bring them together, to combine their efforts coming from all of these different backgrounds, to work together for a common goal and to achieve the ultimate,” said Bernard, now retired in Chesapeake, Va., after six seasons as head coach at N.C. Central and another 14 seasons at Norfolk State, Fayetteville State and Shaw.
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Team members will gather again Saturday at N.C. Central to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that accomplishment. They will be honored during N.C. Central’s doubleheader against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
The 1989 season’s turning point came following the opener, a six-point loss at Virginia State. On the return bus trip to North Carolina for a game in Greensboro against N.C. A&T, Bernard and assistant coach Greg Jackson sat side-by-side and mapped out a plan.
A new point guard
The Eagles had fashioned a 26-3 record the previous season, losing to Troy State on a buzzer-beater in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Cleo Hill and Wayne Howell, the backcourt on that team, graduated. Miles Clarke was back and he moved seamlessly into the shooter’s guard role, playing into a team-leading 14 points per game and MVP performance at the Division II Final Four.
It was the point guard position that most concerned Bernard and Jackson. Finally, they found what would be the solution. Jeffrey Hayes was a 6-foot-4 junior who played for N.C. Central during the 1986 and 1987 seasons, but dropped off the squad in 1988.
Hayes was an excellent student and solid citizen, according to Bernard. So, when Hayes requested a return to the team for the ’89 season, Bernard approved. Because Hayes had never played the point guard position, Bernard asked him to work on that part of his game the entire offseason.
Following the loss to Virginia State, one in which Hayes did not play a single minute, Bernard decided he could no longer wait. The 6-4 Hayes was his point guard beginning with the N.C. A&T game, which the Eagles won handily.
“That turned the season around,” Bernard said.
Hayes averaged eight points and a team-leading four assists, directing N.C. Central to a 21-3 regular-season record and the CIAA’s Southern Division championship. Along the way, the Eagles also overcame the loss to injury of 6-6 starting forward Derrick Leak 11 games into the season. In stepped 6-9 senior center Adrian McKinnon, who eventually led the club in rebounding with nearly eight a game.
Consecutive wins in the CIAA tournament meant a championship-game showdown against longtime league power Virginia Union. The Eagles lost by 20 points, just as they had dropped a 15-point decision to Virginia Union during the regular season.
One week later, the same two teams clashed in the Southeast Regional final in Norfolk, Va., for the right to advance to the Elite Eight in Massachusetts.
Bernard was confident his team’s defense could suffocate Virginia Union’s offense. The Eagles played a stingy brand of defense that allowed its opponents only 56 points per game over the season’s course on 39 percent field-goal shooting and only 30 percent shooting from 3-point range. Defense proved to be the difference in N.C. Central’s stunning 60-55 victory.
In the opening game of the Elite Eight, N.C. Central broke the full-court pressure of Sacred Heart as the final seconds ticked off the clock in a tie game. Dominique Stephens, a 6-5 senior reserve, broke free and was fouled at the basket as time expired. Stephens sank the first free throw in N.C. Central’s 58-57 win.
Following the game, Bernard heard rumblings among the gathered media that N.C. Central’s joy ride would come to an end the following day against a national power from Alabama.
“Many of you probably feel that Jacksonville State will win this game tomorrow,” Bernard recalled saying. “I’m sure when we stand up here tomorrow that it will be a different story.”
Balanced offensive front
Jacksonville State prided itself on relentless full-court pressure that converted turnovers into easy baskets. Bernard decided that N.C. Central would beat the press and attack the basket. The result was layup after layup in a 90-70 stunner.
Then the Eagles dismantled Southeast Missouri State, 73-46, for the championship.
Throughout the season, N.C. Central presented a balanced offensive front to opponents. In addition to the aforementioned starters, there was 6-4 junior forward Antoine Sifford, who averaged 10.6 points a game, and 6-7 junior forward Henry Canty, who contributed eight points and five rebounds a game.
Then there was key reserve Fred Bennett. He came earnestly to his nickname “Pop” because he was 30 years old that season. Bennett graduated from Durham High 12 years earlier, then made one-semester stops at Norfolk State and Fayetteville State before playing two seasons at Durham Tech.
Bennett also picked up odd jobs wherever he could, including working for a construction company that installed windows at a couple of Raleigh hospitals and in the N.C. Central library. He also put in place seats at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill in 1985.
At nights during the summer months, Bennett often found himself playing pickup games at N.C. Central’s McDougald-McLendon Arena. That is where assistant coach Jackson saw him and invited him to try out for the varsity squad.
He played for the Eagles during the 1988 season, then became the team’s sixth man and long-range marksman in ’89. His 40 percent 3-point shooting led the team.
Perhaps nothing was more telling about the ’89 champions than what happened with Bennett during the title game. He saw only a couple of minutes of action once the game’s outcome had been decided.
“That was fine with me, as long as we won,” said Bennett, who graduated from N.C. Central in 1991, has worked for the Boys and Girls Club of Durham ever since, and has operated the game clock at N.C. Central home games for the past 25 years.
“There was no animosity on that team,” he added. “Everybody loved each other.”