North Carolina Central Coach LeVelle Moton took one look of the tape of the Miami Hurricanes going on the road earlier in the season and “annihilating” Duke, and he shut off the computer.
Moton lives and works in the shadow of Duke, North Carolina, NC State and the other ACC teams in the area, so that win told him volumes.
“It’s Tobacco Road,” Moton explained, “and where we are, it’s like the Kardashians – and we’re not Kim. We’re one of the other ones.”
On Tuesday night, playing at Miami, the Eagles were most certainly not Kim Kardashian – they were better than that.
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The Eagles showed talent, grit and effort, putting a major scare into the Hurricanes before falling short 75-71 in a first-round NIT game at the BankUnited Center.
Miami Coach Jim Larranaga was impressed with the Eagles, who were playing their firstNIT game.
“(NC Central) plays defense like Virginia,” Larranaga said of the Eagles, who rank in the top five in Division I in points allowed, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. “They probably should be in the NCAA Tournament tonight – and advancing.”
The Eagles certainly appeared to be on a collision course with the NCAA Tournament after blitzing through the MEAC with a 16-0 regular-season league record.
But after blowing a 12-point lead in the conference semifinals against Delaware State, the Eagles had to pack their bags for Miami.
“Our practices were the worst we’ve ever had,” Moton said of the post-Delaware State work. “It was like a morgue.”
The Eagles (25-8) regrouped, though, thanks to some hot shooting from Nimrod Hilliard early and Jordan Parks late.
NC Central pulled to within 67-63 on a reverse layup by Parks with 55 seconds left.
Parks then fouled out with 43 seconds remaining after nearly coming up with a steal at midcourt.
NC Central kept coming, though, as the Eagles forced a turnover and got a post basket from Karamo Jawara to close their deficit to 69-67 with 27 seconds left.
But Miami won it at the foul line, making 23 of 25, including their last 10 in a row.
“That second half showed we won’t back down,” said Parks, who scored just two points in the first half but finished with 25 points and seven rebounds. “It’s bittersweet.”
Parks made 11 of 13 shots from the floor. But Miami’s players and coach credited Parks’ defense at the top of a 1-3-1 press for helping the Eagles rally. Miami committed 10 of its 12 turnovers in the second half, and the Eagles scored 21 points off those mistakes.
“We were going to throw the kitchen sink at them,” Moton said. “We were going to play every defense known to man, but then the 1-3-1 stuck.”
Hilliard, a senior point guard who entered the game averaging 11.8 points, had 19 points – including 13 in the first half. He made 4 of 8 shots from the floor, including 3 of 3 on three-pointers, and he also made 8 of 10 from the foul line.
Still, Miami (22-12), the only team to win at Duke this season, had too much firepower with four players scoring in double figures.
Miami led 34-25 at the half, but it would have been worse for the Eagles if not for Hilliard. With 7:01 left in the first half, NC Central trailed 23-18, and Hilliard had 13 of the Eagles’ points.
The loss brought an end to the college careers of four Eagles seniors, all starters – guards Hilliard and Anthony McDonald and forwards Parks and Jawara.
That core helped the Eagles win 53 games the past two years.
But NC Central, which is 0-4 all-time against Miami and 1-15 against the ACC, ended its season on a two-game losing streak.
Moton said he is proud of his players, who have overcome much, most notably McDonald, who lost his sister in a car crash earlier this season.
“We’re fighters,” Moton said. “We fought through adversity all year. (The close loss to Miami) may have been shocking to others. But it wasn’t shocking to us.”