As members of the North Carolina Central basketball team took turns cutting down the net, senior John Guerra stood in the back, celebrating with teammates as they came toward him, each one holding their piece of history.
Guerra smiled, exchanged hugs and handshakes with anyone wearing Maroon and Grey who crossed his path.
Eventually Guerra, the walk-on from Cary, made his way over to the sideline and finally sat down. Finally because Guerra literally stood at the end of the bench during the entire game as the Eagles defeated Norfolk State, 50-47, to win the 2019 MEAC Tournament title, their third in a row.
Their reward? The Eagles will take on North Dakota State in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday at 6:40 p.m. on truTV, setting up a potential crosstown match up with Duke on Friday in Columbia, S.C.
NDSU and NCCU met on Nov. 17, 2007 in North Dakota. The Bison won 104-51 during the Eagles transition year to Division I. Eight days earlier, NCCU played its first Division I game against Duke in Cameron. The Blue Devils won 121-56. Not wanting to overlook the Bison, Eagles’ head coach LeVelle Moton was intrigued by a potential second round game against Duke, a school located five miles down the road.
“First order of business if North Dakota State,” Moton said. “It would be wonderful to face Duke. Obviously it would be a huge challenge, but every thing at this point is going to be a huge challenge for us, so we await the challenge.”
Guerra is the only player on the roster who has been active for all three championships. His last trip to Norfolk he did more standing than playing. Because of injuries to his back and leg, it’s been uncomfortable for Guerra to sit. So when he wasn’t playing - he only logged a total of nine minutes in three games - he was standing.
Before the NCCU team was ushered off the court and back to their locker room, Guerra said one final thing: “It’s time to win one.”
The Eagles have advanced to the Big Dance four times in the eight years they have been a full time member of the MEAC. Four times they have been bounced in their first game, the last two times as a No. 16 seed in Dayton, where the NCAA host the First Four.
The team has enough nets, MEAC tournament t-shirts and matching hats. They know the joy of winning big in Norfolk only to have that all forgotten a few days later after losing in the NCAA tournament. They became the first team to win three straight MEAC tournaments since North Carolina A&T won seven in a row from 1982-1988. There is another piece, maybe more important, of history to chance.
“We want to do something we haven’t done,” Moton said. “We’re not going for the pizzazz and the circus and the dog and pony show anymore. (We) have to believe that we can still advance.”
The players know what’s next: they’ll hop on a plane and fly to Dayton. The hotel will roll out the red carpet and they will get the same perks - new Nike gear included - as any other team that’s participating in March Madness. They’ve done all of that the last two years. This season it’s time to win a game for the first time in school history.
“We were just talking about it walking in here,” All-MEAC tournament selection Zacarry Douglas said. “We have to take it one (possession) at a time and come out with a win.”
A win would mean a historic showdown with Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils are the overall No. 1 seed and a team Moton said was the most advertised team he’s ever seen in college basketball, with Zion Williamson leading off SportsCenter most nights.
“It would be played in front of millions,” Moton said. “I’ve never seen a program this advertised this much in history, and deservedly so, but our guys put on our paints one leg at a time just like them. If history has shown us anything, Virginia, what happened to them last year can happen to anyone.”
Moton said the potential showdown would be huge for the city of Durham, with both teams returning to the Bull City as conference tournament champs after Saturday. Two years ago Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke at the NCCU Basketball Tip-Off banquet and told the crowd that he hoped both teams made it to the tournament and met in the Final Four.
“It’s more like the First Four,” Moton said. “Hopefully we can see each other, but the first order of business if North Dakota State.”