NORFOLK, Va. — For five minutes to start the second half on Friday, N.C. Central basketball players put on a defensive clinic against Norfolk State.
Players boxed out. They closed out with hands in faces. They cut off passing lanes. They switched under and over screens. They communicated.
“They were helping each other,” Norfolk State guard Marese Phelps said. “They were talking on the court. They were calling out all the plays. They knew our plays.”
Norfolk State players wilted under such a barrage of defensive pressure and before they knew it were railroaded by an 11-0 run that created a 19-point lead with 15 minutes, 3 seconds remaining. Defending with precision, the Eagles continued to rebound and ride the hips of Spartans’ offensive players, grinding out a 68-45 victory in the semifinals of the MEAC tournament at Scope Arena.
Top-seeded N.C. Central advances to the tournament final, where the Eagles will face No. 3 seed Morgan State or No. 7 seed Coppin State on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPNU). This is the first time in school history that the Eagles will play in the finals of a Division I conference tournament.
If the Eagles win Saturday, they would clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Eagles’ rise comes just two seasons after becoming eligible to play in the conference tournament after transitioning from Division II to Division I. The five-year reclassification process started in 2006 and was long and tedious for the entire athletics department.
N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton, in his fifth season, watched the transition firsthand. He experienced lows and now the highs.
“To be honest, I haven’t event reflected on that and I’m kind of scared to reflect on that because then you become sentimental and mushy,” Moton said. “This ain’t the time for sentimental and mushy. … There were some trials and tribulations. For those of you who were with us when we made the transition to Division I there weren’t a lot of people that bought in.”
He described the transition to the Will Ferrell movie “Semi-Pro.”
“We were trying to do everything to generate a buzz,” Moton continued. “To generate a product. To generate fans. To generate fundraising. We weren’t wrestling alligators at the half or anything like that. … We didn’t have a lot of people in the stands. A lot of people didn’t believe.”
Now they believe. Among the near-capacity crowd was a large contingent of N.C. Central fans.
They were treated to a defensive showcase. The Eagles, who are allowing opponents 58.3 points per game, held their opponents to just 39 shots and 41.0 percent from the field. They forced 14 turnovers and scored 21 points off of those turnovers.
“Defensively they were very good,” Norfolk State coach Robert Jones said. “They did a good job of not letting us get good looks at the rim.”
The Eagles were physical in their bumps in the paint. Defenders remained low and were able to keep offensive players off their spots. They played together.
“Regardless if they are way taller than us, way bigger than us, way faster than us,” N.C. Central senior guard Emanuel Chapman said, “we play five people. … They are going to have to beat all five of us all the time. That’s tough. … It may seem like we have nine or ten people on the court but really we have five. You have to beat everybody.”
N.C. Central held Norfolk State’s leading scorer Malcolm Hawkins to two points on 1-for-7 shooting from the field.
The Eagles walked off the court at halftime with a less-than-comfortable 32-24 lead. Where they had routed Howard in the quarterfinals, the Spartans, as expected, had lived up to their nicknames, forcing their opponents into a rough-and-tumble game. There were few easy buckets.
It was clear the teams were familiar with each other’s style of play, having faced each other at Norfolk State on March 6. The Eagles won 76-70.
Once again on Friday, the teams battled for low-post supremacy for most of the first half. With a sizable height advantage, the Spartans were determined to find room inside, yet the Eagles held firm down low, doubling players on the boxes and monitoring the baseline.
N.C. Central outscored the Spartans 12-8 in the paint. Late in the first half, the Eagles attacked the paint with dribble-drive moves, applying pressure and drawing fouls. They converted 5 of 6 free throws to open a 28-21 lead with 2:11 remaining in the first half.
The Spartans committed seven turnovers in the first half, which the Eagles turned into 12 points.
During one N.C. Central defensive stand, Phelps dribbled helpless above the three-point line, trapped by a rotating man-to-man defense that allowed no room for a pass or shot. He lost his dribble and the Eagles capitalized – MEAC player of the year Jeremy Ingram ran to the wing and nailed a 3-pointer. He finished with 14 points – one of four players to score in double figures.
The Eagles enter Saturday’s game on a 19-game winning streak.
“Their chemistry goes farther than their talent,” Jones said. “You can tell those guys like playing with each other. They are real brothers on the court.”