DURHAM — Every home game before tipoff, N.C. Central basketball coach LeVelle Moton looks into the stands for his 5-year-old daughter, makes eye contact and forms a heart with his hands.
Brooke Moton answers with a heart of her own. Both peek through the hearts and blow each other a kiss.
They’ve done this pregame ritual since Brooke Moton was 2.
Family plays an important role in LeVelle Moton’s life. His daughter, infant son LeVelle Jr., and wife Bridget sit in the same section every home game.
Apparently the routine has worked because N.C. Central has earned its first trip to the NCAA tournament.
N.C. Central faced Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game Saturday in Norfolk, Va., and as usual, as he walked toward the bench before the game, Moton looked for his daughter.
“I’m ready to do the ritual, and she’s asleep,” Moton recalled Tuesday.
He looked back up at the stands a little later and she was still lying fast asleep.
Throughout the game during timeouts he would look up at the stands to see whether his daughter was awake, but she continued to doze.
The game remained tight until the final few minutes, when N.C. Central pulled away. The spectators began to stand on their feet and cheer, and when Moton looked up at the stands, Brooke waved her hands and tried to get his attention.
When the father and daughter made eye contact, she formed the heart and blew a kiss.
Tears began to stream down Moton’s face as the final seconds of the win ticked down.
“I got bad allergies,” Moton, 39, joked after the game Saturday. “They act up in certain situations.”
But he later admitted that the moment his daughter did the ritual got to him.
“From there I just lost my composure, I guess,” Moton said. “That’s what the cameras captured with 10 to 12 seconds left.”
No. 14 seed N.C. Central (28-5) will face No. 3 seed Iowa State (26-7) in the second round of the NCAA tournament in the East region in San Antonio on Friday at 9:50 on TNT.
Moton’s family plans to be at the game, hearts and kisses ready for action.
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1