DURHAM — Erasing the memory of a first-round defeat in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament last year to arch-rival N.C. A&T was the first step for the Eagles.
Then they won a few games, including one against N.C. State 72-62 in overtime. A few wins turned into 21 for the N.C. Central men’s basketball team (21-5, 12-1). Now the team that once was an afterthought in the Triangle is turning heads, and riding a 13-game winning streak. The Eagles hold a two-game lead for first place and appear to be the favorite to win a MEAC championship, which would earn them an automatic-bid to the NCAA tournament.
It would be their first tournament berth.
Coach LeVelle Moton and his players know that hasn’t happened yet.
“We try not to let outside expectations interfere in what we’re doing,” Moton said.
He said the Eagles have a lot to work on and unfinished business. But he assured that his team respects every opponent.
“Any night in our league we can lose, and any night in our league we can win, and we approach it that exact same way,” Moton said.
This is N.C. Central’s second consecutive season with 20 or more wins.
For years, N.C. Central had to battle for respect in the Triangle. Now other schools have started to take notice, including third-ranked Wichita State, which the Eagles lost to 77-66 on Dec. 22. Their flight was delayed, luggage was lost, assistant coaches had to wear sweat suits and the team had to practice in a hotel parking lot in Atlanta. N.C. Central’s leading scorer Jeremy Ingram scored what was a career-high at the time, 37 points.
Moton often retweets tweets from Wichita State fans, usually showing their support for N.C. Central.
“I think we have achieved respect in some capacity, but we still have a long way to go and it’s not given, it’s earned,” he said. “A lot of that onus is on us. We have to continue to finish the regular season and tournament and continue to play NCCU basketball.”
Leading N.C. Central are senior guards Emanuel Chapman and Ingram.
Chapman ranks among the top 10 in the nation in assists per game (6.8), and Ingram ranks among the top 30 in scoring (19.9). Both have seen the program have its conference tournament struggles, and both want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The Eagles go by the motto TOEDWY: The only easy day was yesterday.
“Don’t expect tomorrow to be easy,” Ingram said. “It only gets tougher from here. Once you’ve established that reputation, teams are going to go at you and give you their best.”
Chapman said although the team still remembers the loss, it is not dwelling on it.
“The main thing is last year is last year,” Chapman said. “It is a totally different team with different pieces we didn’t have last year. We’re just playing for this year.”
Starters like guard Alfonzo Houston (10.1 ppg), forwards Jay Copeland (8.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Karamo Jawara (7.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) have stepped up, each raising his averages from last season.
But none of that will matter if the team doesn’t win its MEAC championship.
“Our ultimate goal is to get better everyday,” Chapman said. “Our long term goal is to win a championship and do something for this school that hasn’t been done before. Our vision is to be cutting down the nets.”
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1