N.C. Central University Coach LeVelle Moton said he and his team were practicing Saturday morning before the game against Northern Kentucky when he got a call from athletic director Ingrid Wicker-McCree.
Moton felt a pit in his stomach. McCree doesn’t normally call during shoot around, and her voice sounded different this time. She was down.
“She said, ‘LeVelle I just wanted to call you and let you know that the chancellor passed this morning before you heard it anywhere else,’” Moton recalled.
NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White died Saturday after a yearlong battle with kidney cancer. She was 59.
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“I was really numb, I guess,” Moton said.
His players were getting dressed, ready to head back to the hotel. They hadn’t heard the news yet.
“I knew I had to be strong for them and not allow my emotions to interfere with the present,” he said. “And I called my wife immediately and told her. I had my moments. You know you just break down and shed a tear, and try to smile because in the back of your mind, you know chancellor was a strong individual.”
Saunders-White would say, “Don’t get in your feelings. Be strong. Handle the job at hand,” Moton recalled. He heard her voice telling him to go out and win the game.
And they did.
The Eagles first beat Northern Kentucky 82-74 that Saturday. Then two days later, they upset Missouri 62-52. After the win, Moton became emotional during the press conference.
It wasn’t because they had beaten a Power 5 conference opponent. They expected to do that. But because he thought about his chancellor, who he refers to as his aunt.
“Our kids been playing with heavy hearts all week,” Moton told Missouri reporters after the game, as he fought back tears. “They were really close to our chancellor, as well as myself. And she passed away this week, and it’s been tough.”
Saunders-White arrived at N.C. Central on June 1, 2013, becoming the first permanent female leader and the 11th chancellor of the historically black university in Durham. She was a big supporter of athletics. Saunders-White was often seen cheering wildly on the football field or watching the basketball game in the stands.
N.C. Central (4-2) led Missouri (3-3) for most of the game. The Eagles’ defense forced the Tigers to 25 percent shooting. Patrick Cole led the team with 17 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Dajuan Graf added 12 points and six rebounds.
This wasn’t the first time the Eagles have beaten a program from a Power 5 conference. In 2014, N.C. Central beat N.C. State in overtime and eventually made the NCAA tournament that year.
During the team’s Selection Sunday celebration in 2014, Saunders-White danced along with players in doing the then-popular “Nae-Nae” dance, waving her hand back and forth in the air while moving her feet.
A few days after that event, and before they were to board a flight to San Antonio for its second round game, Moton’s son was badly burned on his face and was rushed to the hospital. It was Saunders-White who helped Moton get through that tough time.
Moton said Saunders-White left a long prayer on his voice mail while he was at the hospital. And while he was on the plane thinking about his son, she sat with him and held his hand.
It was a dark time for Moton. She told him to pray, but not to worry. She said he’d get through it.
“It’s one thing to have a boss, but it’s another thing to have a boss that directly connects with who you are as a person and you consider that person family,” Moton said.
Just like Saturday and Monday night’s games, the rest of the Eagles’ season will be played for Saunders-White.
“I want to honor her in the manner in which she is supposed to be honored,” Moton said. “That’s not assuring that we are going to win every game and every championship, but it’s assuring you that we’re going to go out there and fight, because that’s what she exemplified.”