In 2014 N.C. Central made history. That year the Eagles won their first MEAC title, advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Right before the team was scheduled to leave for San Antonio, N.C. Central head coach LeVelle Moton had to rush his then-1-year-old son, LeVelle, Jr. to the hospital. LeVelle Jr., also known as V.J., accidentally spilled hot coffee on his face and suffered serious burns.
After getting assurance from doctors that V.J. would be OK, Moton traveled to San Antonio with his team, but without his family. So during his first NCAA trip, Moton’s mind was back in North Carolina. Even now he says he remembers little about the trip, even parts of the game are a blank. His mind was on his son. That year the Eagles fell to Iowa State, 93-75, in their first game.
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Last season, N.C. Central found its way back to the NCAA tournament, this time playing in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio. On the first day of open practice, Moton and V.J. played at center court while the team shot baskets on opposite ends of the floor.
Moton spent the majority of his time with V.J. and his daughter, Brooke, afterward telling the media he wanted to savor the moment with his family since they missed the first trip to the tournament. Moton said last year's trip was “really my first time to the NCAA tournament” because he couldn’t recall anything that happened in San Antonio.
As the Eagles wrapped up their open practice, Moton captured family memories, videos of Brooke and V.J., on his cell phone. The next night, N.C. Central fell to UC-Davis, 67-63, in the First Four.
Now Moton and the Eagles (19-15) return to the tournament for the third time. The team is back in Dayton, where it will take on Texas Southern in the First Four Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. After two trips to the NCAA tournament — one he doesn’t remember, the other that was more about having his family with him — Moton said it’s now time to win one.
“We’re enjoying it, but we are locked in,” Moton said with a determined look on his face. “There is no time for enjoyment, honestly. Everybody is running on fumes a little bit, but we have to recharge our batteries and be ready for a great Texas Southern team.”
The Tigers (15-19) are winners of the SWAC and back in the tournament for the second straight season. On Selection Sunday, when Moton learned his team would be facing Texas Southern, he raved about the Tigers' athleticism. He is good friends with Tigers’ head coach Mike Davis, who expressed concern about how to defend the Eagles.
“They run a great system,” Davis said on Tuesday. “It’s going to be a very difficult thing for us just because of the system that he runs, and we only had a couple of days to prepare for the game. I’ve counted 18 different plays that they run. And of course we can’t cover 18 plays in a day or do, two-day period.”
Texas Southern comes into the First Four on a seven-game winning streak, averaging almost 90 points per game. The Eagles had to stop a similar high-powered offense when they faced Savannah State in the MEAC tournament semifinals. All N.C. Central did was hold those Tigers, who came in averaging 87 points per game, to 56 points. If there is anyone who can come up with a game plan to slow down TSU on short notice, it’s Moton.
“Coach Moton, he’s amazing at what he does,” Eagles’ senior forward Pablo Rivas said. “He’s very smart. He always comes out with a game plan, and for us, it’s our job to execute. So him, he prepared for moments like this.”
Moton can prepare the Xs and Os, but he loves to say he doesn’t grab any rebounds or score any points, that’s up to the players. Besides Rivas, nobody on this team played in Dayton last season. When the bright lights hit, Moton isn’t sure how well his young team will respond, no matter how many warnings he sends their way.
“That’s the part that’s out of your hands,” Moton said. “I can tell you that there are a couple of pit bulls waiting around this corner, but it’s not the same until you have to encounter those pit bulls yourself.”
Those pit bulls, or in this case, Tigers, are standing in front of the Eagles and their first ever NCAA tournament victory. With all parties locked in, it’s finally time to win one.
“That’s my selling point,” Moton said. “We have the chance to make history. They have the chance to right their own legacy. They understand the standard that’s been established prior, but we have the opportunity to do something that none of those great teams had the opportunity to do.”