NC Central celebrates No. 14 seed in NCAA tournament

jalexander@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2014 

  • N.C. Central

    No. 14 seed | East Region

    FIRST ROUND

    vs. No. 3 Iowa State

    San Antonio

— When CBS anchor Greg Gumbel announced N.C. Central men’s basketball team as a 14 seed in the NCAA tournament to play in San Antonio, fans and players in the gym went wild.

As the CBS cameras pointed to the team, some Eagles fans – young and old – jumped up and down. Some hugged each other. Everyone screamed as if they were a bubble team sneaking into the Big Dance.

Everyone knew the team would be in the tournament after clinching an automatic bid, but fans were just excited.

“It’s crazy,” said senior guard Emmanuel Chapman. “You see that stuff on TV all the time and you always wonder how you would react when you don’t make it. And making it this year, it’s a great feeling.”

No. 14 seed N.C. Central (28-5, 18-1 MEAC) will play No. 3 seed Iowa State (26-7, 11-7 Big 12) in the East Region in San Antonio on March 21. No. 14 is the highest seed for a school in MEAC history.

“It’s real now,” head coach LeVelle Moton said. “That dream is now a reality that moment they announced N.C. Central going to San Antonio.

“They’re (Iowa State) certified tough and they probably have the most productive offense in the country. So we definitely have our hands full.”

Before the selection was called, players danced for the fans. N.C. Central chancellor Debra Saunders-White joined in doing the “Nae-Nae” dance, waving her hand back and forth in the air while moving her feet.

The Eagles were one of the last teams announced during Selection Sunday. Twice they held their breath before Gumbel announced who No. 3 seed Syracuse and No. 4 Louisville would play.

“You do want to dodge the tiger a little bit, and Louisville is playing the best basketball,” Moton said with a laugh. “They’re kind of clicking on all cylinders and you want to kind of avoid that team. We dodged that bullet, pretty much.”

Riding a 20-game winning streak, the Eagles’ path to the tournament didn’t come easy. In the first two rounds of the MEAC tournament, N.C. Central won by a combined 69 points. But the championship game was different: It was a battle back and forth against Morgan State before N.C. Central pulled away in the final minutes, winning 71-62.

As the final seconds ticked down, tears began to stream down Moton’s face. After shaking the hands of the Morgan State team, he put his MEAC champions hat on and covered his face to hide his tears.

“That was my allergies,” Moton joked. “The weather was changing.”

Moton said the support wasn’t always there from the beginning. He said it wasn’t easy, and nobody believed.

“I wasn’t even thinking about basketball,” he said. “It was so much bigger than basketball. It was about what we did collectively to help everyone believe in us.

“I’m not shameful of (the tears). I’m a grown man. It was an emotional moment because there were so many trials and tribulations.”

This is the Eagles’ first NCAA Division I tournament appearance in program history in only their third eligible year for postseason play.

N.C. Central began its transition to Division I sports in 2007-08, playing in Division II as a member of the CIAA.

“I think this is a moment in N.C. Central history that everyone will cherish and remember,” Moton said. “To have our fans join us at the hip and wait along with us, it’s pretty much parallel to how we are as a university. And that is a unit and one family.”

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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