When asked if this MEAC tournament title, his third, felt better than the previous two, all North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton would admit was this one was different.
The others, Moton said, his team was the favorite. He had more talent, the team had a better record, there was no sneaking up on opponents. This current team he brought to Norfolk for the MEAC Tournament was a No. 6 seed. The Eagles came into the tournament with a 9-7 conference record.
Moton’s starting lineup included two freshmen and one walk-on. That walk-on, John Guerra, was discovered by Moton while helping at one of Moton’s basketball camps two summers ago. One of those freshmen, point guard Jordan Perkins, came to NCCU from a program, Greensboro Day, where he was used to winning, and admitted he had to humble himself once MEAC play started.
Moton’s best player during the Eagles 71-63 win over No. 1 seed Hampton, was senior Pablo Rivas. Rivas scored a game-high 22 points and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. He started one game for NCCU this year. That’s right, the one senior who saw significant minutes during the championship run last season, came off the bench as a senior, when he was clearly the most important returning player.
Nobody expected much of this team. They were picked to finish third in the MEAC, which was pretty generous since Moton lost seven seniors from last seasons team. They jumped out to a 3-0 start in MEAC play, then went on a three-game losing streak, and many were ready to write this season off as a rebuilding year. But as Moton likes to say, the MEAC tournament week is all about 13 dogs chasing one bone, and his big dogs showed up in Norfolk this week.
“A lot of people gave up on this team,” Moton said. “People didn’t believe in us and I told these young men we had to regroup.”
Moton said he was surrounded by underdogs. His roster is made up mostly of players who came to North Carolina Central after playing elsewhere. Moton said he feels comfortable as the underdog. Hampton defeated N.C. Central 80-76 on Feb. 5 in Durgam, the night Moton had his jersey retired. The Pirates, in their final year in the MEAC, were the most talented team, Moton said so himself Friday night. To the Eagles, the stats didn’t matter. Stats, as he told his team, are for losers. On paper, nobody gave N.C. Central a chance. On the court, the Eagles didn’t back down, attacking the Pirates from the start, and Hampton without a field goal for a two minute stretch after Hampton tied the game at 58.
That toughness - taking the Pirates best shot and not backing down - started in August, Guerra said.
“It comes from the practices,” Guerra said. “Our practices are a dog fight every night. It started with 6 AM workouts over the summer, running, doing every little thing so that when it comes to two minutes remaining and a tied game, we are ready to play.”
Guerra came ready to play. The junior from Cary, who finished with 12 points to tie a season-high, knocked down a pair of 3s right out the gate to start the second half, and that lit a fire in the entire team. Perkins, from Greensboro, started to attack the Hampton defense, scoring on back-to-back layups in the second half to put the Eagles ahead eight.
Moton is quick to point out that Perkins, and fellow freshman Reggie Gardner, Jr., drive him crazy. But he rode with them all year, and in a league that’s driven by veteran guards, his rookies might have been too young to realize just how big the moment was against Hampton. If they were nervous, it never showed as Perkins and Gardner combined for 24 points on the big stage.
“I was just playing,” Perkins said. “When I got an opportunity to attack the rim I did. My teammates believed in me, my coaches believe in me, that’s half the battle right there.”
Perkins leaned heavily on junior C.J. Wiggins, who didn’t see time against Hampton, and senior Raekwon Harney, another walk-on, who scored four points, all coming off consecutive layups that came at a crucial time when the Pirates were fighting to get back into the game. Harney played behind Perkins all season, but has been as asset to the young point guard.
“They told me to lock in, they believed in me,” Perkins said. “We were the dark horse, the six seed and nobody thought we could win.”
But the Eagles did win. One of Moton’s biggest messages to this team this season was they hadn’t won anything. All the trophies at N.C. Central belonged to another group of players. Now, the 2017-18 team has a place in school history, going to the NCAA Tournament for the third time. This one was the least expected, that is, to everyone outside of that locker room this season.
“We just pulled it out,” Moton said. “I’m extremely proud for these guys because they have a legacy they don’t have to share, they have one of their own and know one can ever take this away from them.”