MEAC Tournament: N.C. Central vs. Howard 6 p.m.

NC Central hopes MEAC tournament is route to NCAA tournament

CorrespondentMarch 11, 2014 

N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton barked instructions from the bleachers inside McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium last week in Durham. He reminded junior forward Karamo Jawara to shuffle his feet on high screens and reminded senior Jeremy Ingram to continue moving during offensive sets.

“The law of inertia,” he said to Ingram. “Look it up.”

Moton, who Monday was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, pulled fundamental lessons from his instructional textbooks to help players prepare for this week’s MEAC tournament at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Va.

Top-seeded N.C. Central will face Howard, which beat N.C. A&T 53-47 Tuesday, in the second round at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and enters on a 17-game winning streak. N.C. Central is this season’s favorite to claim the tournament title and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.

The Eagles finished with a 15-1 conference record and earned the school’s first Division I regular-season conference championship. They amassed a 25-5 overall record, collecting the second-most wins in a season since John McLendon’s squad in 1950-51.

There has// been plenty to celebrate.

Ingram, who averaged 20.2 points per game, was named MEAC Player of the Year. He’s just the second player in school history to earn that type of honor since Moton, who was CIAA Player of the Year in 1996. Moton starred for the Eagles in Division II in 1992-96.

Senior point guard Emanuel Chapman, who led the league with 6.8 assists this season, was named to the MEAC’s third team. He set the school’s season record with 203 assists, surpassing Donald Sinclair (200) in 1979-80. He’s fifth in the nation in assists.

After N.C. Central secured its first regular-season title in front of a near-sellout crowd last week, buzz about the program has spread around campus and throughout Durham. Moton even shared a few laughs with players before practice.

During a news conference Moton was reminded of a comment Roy Williams made when he accepted North Carolina’s coaching job five years ago. Williams told Moton that down the road he would have a “passion advantage” because, like him, he coached at his alma mater. Moton never forgot. Williams texted him last week to remind him.

“I have more passion in my thumb than the average N.C. Central fan … because I’m a product of this basketball program,” Moton said. “I shed some blood, sweat and tears on this court. We were able to win championships and regional championships, go to Final Fours and things of that nature. You just want the same passion and happiness for these guys because they work just as hard.”

But Moton, in his fifth season, mainly has dodged phone calls, texts and accolades. He’s focused on details that will matter when the Eagles walk on the court.

He and his staff have kept long hours in front of televisions, breaking down video of opponents in preparation for a tough contest Wednesday.

Last season, the Eagles arrived at the tournament on a high, having a similarly impressive conference record, only to fall short in the first round. They lost to N.C. A&T 55-42.

No N.C. Central player wants a repeat of that. Players like Ingram and Chapman walked off the court disappointed and had to sit inside a silent locker room questioning themselves.

“It was a dead environment,” Ingram said. “Everyone was down on themselves, knowing that we didn’t give our top effort, on the defensive end especially. A lot of pain. A lot of missed opportunity. We didn’t even talk to each other.”

They say they’ve learned their lesson going into this season’s tournament.

“You don’t ever want to feel that again,” Chapman said.

Chapman and his teammates studied their mistakes. What did they learn?

“The same thing a toddler learns when he touches a hot stove,” Chapman said. “Or a girl learns when she meets a guy that isn’t exactly what she expected. … You can dissect a lot from that time in the locker room. You go back to the drawing board and you talk to your coach and figure out what you have to do.”

Everything starts with defense for N.C. Central. The Eagles have held opponents to 59.2 points per game, showcasing a 37.6 field-goal percentage defense – ranked fifth in the country. Offense is created from smothering defense.

Moton’s players have adopted the company line and learned from last season’s tournament mistakes.

“One thing I love about this team,” Moton said. “They’ve sacrificed their individuality for the betterment of the team. That’s extremely tough. … These guys are not NBA players, but in their minds they believe they are. And for them to sacrifice their individuality for the betterment of the team I just think is indicative of who we are and that’s why we celebrated a championship.”

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