SAN ANTONIO — N.C. Central players sat quietly at their lockers after losing a heartbreaking game to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA tournament late Friday night at the AT&T Center.
Dejected and worn out, players held their heads low and tried to enjoy their postgame meal. There wasnt much taste. They had exhausted themselves trying to slow down a powerful opponent and came up short, snapping a 20-game winning streak and ending a historic season for the N.C. Central athletic program.
The Eagles (28-6) were not ready to end their magical season, which included big wins and awards.
As crazy as this may sound to the outside world, you know, if you go in our locker room right now its like a morgue, because those kids walked into here expecting to win a basketball game, N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton said after the loss. There are no moral victories. That doesnt count in our program.
During this season, the nation learned more about N.C. Centrals young Division I basketball program. After the athletics department moved from Division II to Division I in 2007-08, the Eagles joined the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and after a five-year process became eligible to participate in Division I postseason tournaments.
This season the basketball team won the schools first MEAC championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
It was the basketball teams first conference title since 1950.
The bar is set pretty high, N.C. Central junior Jordan Parks said. Excellence is expected. Perfection. Those who are coming back and those coming in, we expect to be right back in this position, but with a better feeling.
Having won so many games in row, it was difficult for players to reflect on what the team had accomplished after losing to Iowa State 93-75, particularly after going into halftime down by six points. Yet through their tears, they recalled the collective effort that created so many special moments.
Everything we did, we did together, N.C. Central senior guard Emanuel Chapman said. Defensively, offensively, on and off the floor we were a family, and were still a family.
Chapman set the schools all-time assist record and single-season mark this year. He was half of the guard duo along with fourth-year guard Jeremy Ingram that Moton said help build the program.
Together they were a hard-to-guard one-two punch.
Before the clock expired against Iowa State, Moton took Ingram, Chapman and senior Alfonzo Houston out of the game. He embraced each on the sideline.
I just told them I love them because they made me look really good as a basketball coach this year, said Moton, who was named MEAC coach of the year and MEAC tournament outstanding coach. I didnt make a shot. I didnt grab a rebound. I didnt throw an assist. It was those guys along with other seniors.
Ingram scored the most points 708 since Ted Manning posted 825 points during the 1964-65 season. He averaged 20.6 points per game and became the player every team scouted and marked.
Its special to be part of history, Ingram said. Youre going to be in books 20 years from now. Its been a special year.
The teams success resonated throughout campus and inspired alumni. On the road during the postseason, the Eagles were supported by loyal fans.
At home, where the Eagles went undefeated, the crowds grew larger and louder, drawing comment from Moton who recalled many empty seats when the program started in Division I.
N.C. Central athletics director Ingrid Wicker-McCree said her office fielded hundreds of calls from alumni during the tournament run.
This really culminates our transition process, she said. It means so much for our program obviously for the university in terms of the visibility. Most importantly for our young men especially those who were with us through the transition. This is what they worked for. This is what we all worked for.
Wicker-McCree said chancellor Debra Saunders-White asked members of the leadership team to select goals during their performance reviews. She said she initially wrote win championships, though the chancellor asked her to be more specific because goals needed to be measurable.
So she wrote down that mens basketball, womens tennis and baseball were going capture MEAC titles. She was prophetic.
Wicker-McCree said the basketballs teams success should bode well for the future of the athletic department.
Keep winning, Wicker-McCree said. You cant go back. Its contagious. This is only going to inspire our other student athletes to more because they want to be here as well.
It will take Moton several days, perhaps months, to shake off Friday nights loss. Still, he didnt want the teams journey to be forgotten amid the disappointment.
Although we didnt give our best effort on this national stage, I do want them to understand that they represented North Carolina Central and the MEAC basketball conference really well, he said.