After a heartbreaking defeat Friday night in the MEAC semifinals, and missed chance at an automatic NCAA tournament bid, N.C. Central will instead play in the National Invitation Tournament.
The Eagles (25-7), a No. 7 seed, will open play on the road against No. 2 seed Miami (21-12) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.
There wasn’t nearly as much excitement in players faces as there was last year when N.C. Central made the NCAA tournament for the first time. And rightfully so.
The best hope of returning to the NCAA tournament ended Friday after fifth-seeded Delaware State upset the Eagles, the regular-season MEAC champions, in the semifinals of the conference tournament, snapping a 35-game conference winning streak.
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Defense had defined the Eagles’ identity, but Friday night they showed some cracks in the armor.
The Hornets (18-17) battled back from a 12-point second-half deficit and pulled even twice with less than three minutes remaining. They finally took the lead after two free throws by senior guard Amere May with 1 minute, 46 seconds remaining. May got to the line time and time again. He ended up with a game-high 27 points and was 9 of 10 from the free-throw line.
N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton said for the first time in his coaching career, he didn’t have words to say to his players when he walked in the locker room after the loss.
“They were heartbroken, but I think its great that they were feeling that,” Moton said. “I would only be concerned if they were smiling and everything was OK. So I can deal with it. That’s their heart and soul they put into it.”
Moton and his players assured fans Sunday that they would treat the NIT like it was the NCAA tournament.
“We really found out that the things that make you feel good in life, championships and love, are the same thing that can make you feel so bad as well,” Moton said. “But the true test of a man, is how he gets back up.”
“We’re going to celebrate and enjoy this. We’ve come a long way.”
He said the team has overcome deaths in families, girlfriends in comas and various injuries, especially to senior point guard Nimrod Hilliard.
Hoping that Friday night was a fluke, the Eagles, will look pick up where they left off before the MEAC tournament. They give up the fifth fewest points per game in the nation.
Miami enters the NIT with wins against Duke and N.C. State, both tournament teams.
“Short turnaround, so its unlike any other road game because we just found out,” Moton said. “I dont do a lot of vacationing down there like most people, but I know it’s a tough place so we’ve got to turn around, get some film and chop it up put a scouting report in the hands of our guys and treat it like business as usual.”
Senior guard Jordan Parks thanked the fans.
“We’re going to continue to put on for this institution,” he said. “And continue to put on for y’all.”