North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton sat on the dais moments after his Eagles’ season came to an end, defeated 67-63 by UC Davis in the NCAA First Four in Dayton.
Sitting to Moton’s left were redshirt senior guard Dajuan Graf and senior forward Kyle Benton. There was disappointment on the faces of all three, especially since N.C. Central had chances to win this game after leading by three at the break. But the second half didn’t go their way, as the Eagles shot 28 percent from the floor after halftime. Their historic 25-win season was over, and all the trio could do was reflect on a great ride, showing no emotions as reality set in.
Go back to the beginning of the season and Moton would have never imagined he would be in that position, just a couple missed opportunities away from winning the first NCAA tournament game in school history since making the jump to Division I six years ago. When preseason camp started the Eagles were picked to finish third in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Moton, who led N.C. Central to the NCAA tournament in 2014, didn’t know what to expect from this group, whom he affectionately refers to as “misfits.”
The core of the team, all five starters and the top three reserves, all transfers looking for another shot. At first, it was a little rocky.
“We had some misfits, some guys who needed to buy into something that was bigger than themselves, they had never done that,” Moton said. “We took some chances and rolled the dice out there to see if they could possibly do it.”
All seven of his seniors came to Durham looking for a second chance. His best player, MEAC Player of the Year Pat Cole, is on his third school. N.C. Central is the fourth stop for forward Will Ransom. So a lot of moving parts had to come together as one because they knew it was their last chance to win a championship. And, to Moton’s surprise, they did just that.
“You know, honestly, they shocked me,” Moton said. “I didn’t expect this from this team. They shocked me.”
Early on in the season, after a close road loss to Ohio State and a win at Missouri, this team drew comparisons to the 2014 squad. Moton didn’t think that was fair. The 2014 team set the bar, and every team had to measure up. Moton wasn’t sure if this team had it in them. The coach and some of the players didn’t see eye-to-eye a year ago, and the record reflected that. Coming into this season, it was Moton’s way or the highway. They got the message in preseason, believing in the words Moton spoke.
“I just didn’t come into the season with the right mindset,” Graf said. “I had a meeting with coach and he told me I would have a great season if I did what I had to do in preseason. I had a great preseason and it carried over throughout the season.”
Graf was the second-leading scorer on the team (14.1 ppg) and was named to the All-MEAC second team.
“These guys trusted in me and believed in me, coach believed in me to lead this team,” Graf said. “I can’t be mad at the way the season ended. It was a great season.”
The Eagles (25-9) won at least 20 games for the fourth time under Moton and went 13-3 in league play, including a 13-game win streak. After being the only team that started league play with a winning record, N.C Central played every game with a bullseye on their back.
“That’s not easy night in and night out, going out there and everyone playing you like you’re the Patriots, or you’re Duke or the Yankees,” Moton said.
One day this group will return to Durham, maybe in five years, maybe in 10, and be honored for winning the MEAC regular season and tournament titles. The players said they can’t be mad at how the season ended. The words that came out of their mouth, didn’t match the expressions on their faces. That’s to be expected.
“It’s difficult now, but we’ll look back on this one day and smile about it, sooner than later,” Moton said. “They are champions, they are tournament champions. ... There is only going to be one team end on a happy note, and that’s the unfortunate part about this. They made a lot of people proud and they made me proud.”
Herald-Sun sports writer Jonas Pope is @JEPopeIV on Twitter.