NORFOLK, Va. — N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton shuffled down the sideline in front of his team’s bench, bending his knees and holding his arms in defensive position as if he were once again playing for the Eagles.
It was early in the first half on Wednesday against No. 8 seed Howard and the coach was playing defense just as intensely as his team on the court. As he moved and shouted instructions, his team rotated and rotated and rotated, swarming the Bison and creating a turnover, which senior guard Jeremy Ingram grabbed inside the paint and raced down court for a transition layup.
The top-seeded Eagles (26-5) kept swarming, pulling comfortably ahead in the first half – shooting 71.4 percent from the field while holding their opponents to 21.7 from the field – and eventually wore out the Bison en route to a 92-46 victory in the second round of the MEAC Tournament at Scope Arena.
Moton broke a sweat rallying his team. “I didn’t come here to play defense,” he said. “I wasn’t really dressed for the part. It just fuels. Just an energy.”
“It kind of looks weird to you guys, like the coach is wild over there,” N.C. Central senior guard Emanuel Chapman said. “It starts in practice. He’s just as energetic as we are. … In practice, if the ball goes out of bounds, he might dive on it. If he’s doing that, then we can get on the floor a little more. That’s where it starts. If the head man has that much enthusiasm and energy then it’s infectious.”
N.C. Central, which has won 18 consecutive games, advances to the semifinals on Friday at 6 p.m.
The Eagles’ man-to-man defense left the Bison befuddled and coy for most of the game. With his teammates locking opponents down, Ingram found his range and led the Bison with 21 of his game-high 30 points in the first half. He’s averaging 20.2 points this season.
The MEAC player of the year drained three 3-pointers in the first half, falling to the floor to connect on the third as he was fouled. He converted a free throw for a 4-point play that placed the Eagles ahead 26-11 with 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
“I got open shots and just knocked them down,” Ingram said. He made 5 of 6 3-point attempts.
Bolstered by hard-knocking defensive play and easy transition baskets, the Eagles led 47-23 at halftime. Led by Ingram, they steadily built on that lead in the second half, playing the kind of unselfish basketball that marked a season where they won a Division I regular-season title for the first time in school history.
The Eagles held an 11-0 assist advantage in the first half and were better at distributing the basketball throughout.
Ingram – who played 26 minutes – maintained a hot hand in the second half and kept driving past defenders to the basket, showcasing the skills and speed that helped him earn post-season accolades.
“He makes my job easy,” said Chapman, who had five points and two assists in 16 minutes.
Ingram scored his 30th point mid-way through the second half and retired to the bench along with starters Chapman and junior forward Jay Copeland (11 points and six rebounds).
Reserve players finished out the contest.
MEAC observers watched the Eagles closely on Wednesday to see how the team would respond after losing in the first round of the tournament last season. They were favored to reach the finals. In a tense game against North Carolina A&T, the higher-seeded Eagles were upset and lost in their first attempt at claiming the conference’s NCAA Tournament berth.
Afterward, players sulked and regretted their sluggish, tense performance. Moton said that team was immature, whereas this year’s squad has handled the task of preparing for tournament play with poise and focus.
This time there was no room for upsets. Attuned to the significance of the game and mindful of last season’s debacle, the Eagles left little doubt about who was the stronger team.
For coach and players, there was a modicum of redemption.
“We’re not going to shy away from that,” Moton said. “We’re not going to come up here and be politically correct. Say, ‘No, it didn’t bother us.’ It’s like your ex-girlfriend leaving your for another guy. You don’t get over that.”