Why Dayton has been a house of horrors for NCCU

N.C. Central knows the drill by now: Have a big send off from campus, board a chartered flight and head to Dayton.

The Eagles have started the NCAA tournament in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio two years in a row and are heading back for a 16-seed showdown with North Dakota State (18-15, 9-7) on Wednesday. By now Eagles’ head coach LeVelle Moton said he could be a tour guide around the city of Dayton.

“They should pay me for that,” Moton said jokingly. “I know where everything is: the hotel, the food and drinks for you guys, I know the secret room, the back room, I know all of those things, man. You need a tour guide, I can be that.”

Moton was in a light mood on Sunday, moments after the NCAA selection Show, but the the first two trips to Dayton have been no laughing matter. The Eagles are 0-2 at the University of Dayton Arena.

2017: N.C. Central vs. U.C. Davis

This was arguably Moton’s best team he’s taken to Dayton. The Eagles dominated the MEAC that season, going 13-3 in league play and ran through the conference tournament, where their averaged margin of victory was 23.6 points and were led by MEAC player of the year Pat Cole.

That N.C. Central team was loaded with experience and dubbed the “oldest team in the country” with seven redshirt seniors on the roster. It was the first NCAA appearance for the Aggies.

What went wrong?

First, the Eagles, who lost by four, couldn’t make a layup to start the game. Then they fell behind by nine before battling back to tie the game at 18. N.C. Central eventually took the lead at the half but U.C. Davis started the second half on a 21-9 run and shot 70 percent from the field during that stretch.

The Eagles pulled to within one, 64-63, but missed five straight shots to end the game. N.C. Central, not known for its 3-point shooting that season, fell in love with the long ball and went 5-for-26 from 3 that game. The Aggies also outrebounded the Eagles 40-30.

Silver lining

N.C. Central left Dayton feeling like they beat themselves, with so many missed shots around the basket.

North Carolina Central’s Kyle Benton (25) and UC Davis’ J.T. Adenrele (13) vie for the tip off in the first half of a First Four game of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Dayton, Ohio. John Minchillo AP

2018: N.C. Central vs. Texas Southern

This was the battle of two teams from HBCU conferences, and Moton wasn’t a fan of that. It was also the second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for both teams.

The Tigers were coached by Mike Davis, who led Indiana to the National Title game in 2002. The 2017-18 N.C. Central team made a surprise run through the MEAC, winning the tournament as a No. 6 seed. No starters returned from the previous team and the backcourt was a pair of true freshmen - Jordan Perkins and Reggie Gardner, Jr.

There were two match up problems for the Eagles on the Tigers’ roster: 5-foot-7 guard Damontrae Jefferson and 7-2 center Trayvon Reed.

What went wrong?

The short version (no pun intended) was that Jefferson (25 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals) and Reed (10 points, 8 rebounds, 6 blocks) did what they had done all season.

The Eagles, with a whole new lineup from the previous season, had a deer-in-the-headlights look, trailed by 10 at the break and only got three points from center Raasean Davis in the second half. It was the first game since 2012 that N.C. Central didn’t hit a 3-pointer in a game, going 0-14 from deep. The Eagles also went on a 6-minute scoring drought in the second half. TSU went up by double-digits early and led by double figures the rest of the way.

Davis was the only player for N.C. Central to score in double figures and two starters - John Guerra and Gardner - failed to score at all.

Silver lining

All five starters would return for 2018-19, a rarity for Moton, who usually has a revolving door of transfers from one year to the next. Reserve guard Larry McKnight, Jr. played seven minutes off the bench last year and moved into the starting lineup in 2018.

How do the Eagles get over the hump?

That’s the million dollar question. Getting to Dayton has become routine. What will it take for N.C. Central to win its first NCAA tournament game?

“We have to relax and just play basketball,” Moton said. “It’s so different. There are so many bright lights, it’s almost like the Super Bowl. I just want our guys to play loose. I don’t want them to feel a lot of pressure on them.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.