NORFOLK, Va. — Once again, N.C. Central found a way.
This time the Eagles remained mentally unflappable against a tall, powerful opponent and made their free throws at one point during the second half converting 16 consecutive from the charity stripe.
The top-seeded Eagles (28-5) captured the MEAC Tournament with a 71-62 victory over No. 3 seed Morgan State and earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
It hasnt really hit me yet, N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton said. Its tremendous.
This is the first time for any N.C. Central team to advance to Division I NCAA Tournament play since the school reclassified from Division II in 2011.
Its also the mens basketball teams first conference tournament championship since John B. McLendons team captured the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament in 1950.
The Eagles won the NCAA Division II mens basketball national championship in 1989 and have a 10-5 record in six appearances in the NCAA Division II mens basketball tournament.
N.C. Centrals 28 wins ties the most wins in a season. The mens basketball team posted a 28-4 record while winning the NCAA Division II national championship. The 1950-51 team finished 28-7.
In the end, the MEACs regular season champions displayed the pedigree that made them favorites in this tournament. MEAC player of the year Jeremy Ingram was named tournament most valuable player and MEAC coach of the year LeVelle Moton was named tournament most outstanding coach.
Ingram scored 29 points in 36 minutes, despite picking up four fouls. He showcased his shooting touch late in the second half when his team needed a basket. Brought off the bench, he found his way to the top of the key and made a solo dribble move that freed him for a pull-up jumper that gave the Eagles a 61-54 lead with 1 minutes, 57 seconds remaining. His shot kept his teams momentum pumping.
Yet the teams 20th consecutive victory was a complete team effort.
Poised and defensive-minded, the Eagles had to overcome Morgan State and its 7-foot-2 senior center Ian Chiles, who scored a career high 26 points and grabbed six rebounds. With either hand, he turned inside and scored on the Eagles, making life miserable for the front court of Jay Copeland, Jawara Karamo and Jordan Parks, who each spent time guarding the long-armed foe.
The Eagles played Chiles one-on-one, rotating defenders throughout the game. Moton said the objective was to keep him off the block. He preferred for Chiles to beat them instead of other Morgan State players.
Pick your poison, Moton said. We wanted to make it as difficult for him off the block as possible.
Copeland, Karamo and Parks dropped low and buried an elbow in the 7-footers back, slowing him, though not stopping him.
N.C. Central found other ways to disrupt the Bears. The Eagles converted 25 of 30 free throw attempts in the second half. From the 11-minute mark, they drained 16 consecutive free throws to slowly build a lead.
We just come up there with a clear head and knock them down, Ingram said.
Moton said free throws are an essential part of his practice. At the end, a random player is called to make a pressure free throw.
If they miss, they have to run, Moton said. Thats all I know how to do as a coach and I hope its carrying over to this environment.
These two teams threw everything at each other in the first half and battled to 31-all at halftime.
With a certain height advantage, the Bears tried to pound the ball inside, feeding Chiles. With their leading scorer Justine Black on the bench for much of the first half with two fouls, he accepted the offensive challenge, twice dunking over N.C. Central defenders once earlier in the half on a beautiful alley-oop play.
Chiles poured in 10 points in the first half and the Bears kept punching, using their physical presence in the paint.
The Eagles, however, refused to play the role of punching bag, striking back with execution on offense, running plays for Ingram, who scored 18 points in the first half, knocking down his three 3-point attempts.
When he was hidden behind defenders, seniors guard Emanuel Chapman and Reggie Groves found their offensive touch.
Groves knocked down a clutch 3-pointer with 4:44 remaining in the second half to place N.C. Central ahead 55-50. It stopped the bleeding, said Moton, who complimented his guard for not over-dribbling.
As soon as the clock expired, N.C. Central players rushed the court and hugged each other in celebration. They had completed a goal set during the pre-season, back when they did more running than shooting.
Moton, in his fifth season, walked across the court with tears in his eyes. Later, he recalled the tough days as a N.C. Central assistant when the team boarded planes around the country to face unbeatable opponents for paydays.
Moton, wearing the games cut down net around his neck, said hes looking forward to the NCAA Tournament and doesnt care what seed his team receives. He said his guys are fearless.