Howard wins thrilling MEAC Championship game to punch his NCAA ticket


NORFOLK — Kenny Blakeney couldn’t stop crying. It was 3:30 a.m. Saturday afternoon at Scope Arena, Howard had just ended a 31-year NCAA tournament drought with a stunning 65-64 victory over Norfolk State in the tournament final. of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and the tears flowed. everywhere.

But Blakeney was the leader of the aqueducts.

Each new embrace produced another torrent of tears. When freshman Shy Odom, the MEAC Tournament MVP, packed it up shouting, “Coach, I love you, I love you!” Blakeney couldn’t even answer. A moment later, when Howard chairman Wayne AI Frederick arrived, it took Blakeney a few seconds to get up. When he did, he cried on Frederick’s shoulder and said, “Thank you, you, thank you, thank you.”

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It was Frederick who told athletic director Kery Davis to hire Blakeney four springs ago, even though Blakeney had never been a head coach. “As soon as I met him, I said, ‘Hire him,'” Frederick said. “I knew he was our man as soon as he walked through the door.”

Saturday was a long time coming for Blakeney and for Howard. The Bisons were 4-29 in his first season and were only able to play five games in the covid-plagued 2020-21 season. But Blakeney’s recruiting began a year ago, and Howard went 16-13. This season has produced 22 wins, an MEAC regular season title and now – finally – the tournament title and the first trip to the NCAA tournament since Butch Beard coached Howard in 1992.

“Wow,” Blakeney said quietly standing in front of his team, the net around his neck and the MEAC trophy beside him. He stopped and started choking again. “Just wow. I mean, damn s—. Everything you went through, 6 a.m. practices, getting kicked out of the locker room — all of it — was for that.

It was an amazing basketball game. Norfolk State had won the last two MEAC titles and was conference class with North Carolina Central for most of coach Robert Jones’ 10 seasons at the school. Howard entered halftime with a 33-27 lead, but the Spartans scored the first five points of the second half and neither team led by more than four the rest of the way.

In the final 20 minutes, there were six draws and 11 lead changes. Back-to-back field goals were as close to a run as anyone has come.

“It was everything we expected,” Jelani Williams of Howard said. “It was what a league game is supposed to be.”

Williams and Odom were the last pieces added by Blakeney this season. Williams came to Howard as a graduate student after four years in Pennsylvania. Earlier this season, Williams said he decided to play Howard because he wanted to be the leader of a team that had a shot at winning a championship.

That dream came true on Saturday, although for a while it looked like the Bison would be just around the corner. Two free throws from Norfolk State’s Joe Bryant Jr. with 23.7 seconds left gave the Spartans a 64-60 lead. But Marcus Dockery drained a three-pointer – Howard’s only three-pointer in the second half – with 13.2 seconds left, and Blakeney called his final timeout.

The Bison went out in their “41” defense, meaning they were trying to deny any incoming passes. It worked. The Spartans had a miscommunication and the incoming pass ended up going past everyone and out of bounds.

The clock has never moved. When Howard came on, there was no doubt where the ball was going: to Williams. He already had 18 points – Howard’s only player in double figures – and he had been the Bison’s rock down the stretch.

“I’m supposed to be the badass, especially in tight games,” he said. “I understand this role and I to want this role.

Williams grabbed the ball high from the sidelines and sunk the teeth of the Norfolk State defense. As the Spartans fell on him, he twisted his body and made a mistake. The Spartans had complained about fouls early and often, but this time there was no argument.

Williams drained the first shot to level the score at 64. Jones called a timeout to make him think about the second.

He did. “I thought, ‘That’s why I came to Howard,'” Williams said, still holding the ball he took the shots with. “I’ve waited my whole life for a moment like this. I am Never release that ball. I knew this was my last chance to go to the NCAAs and I was going to make it.

He hit the free throw for a 65-64 lead with 6.1 seconds left. NSU put the ball in midfield and called their final timeout with 4.3 seconds left. The inbounds came to Kris Bankston and he drove the baseline. But Bison’s defense came his way and his shot hit the bottom of the rim as time ticked away.

Thumbs up for the Spartans. Euphoria for the Bison. It took Norfolk State players several minutes to find their legs to walk to the locker room. Howard’s celebration was well under way. Former Howard players flooded the floor. Former coach AB Williamson, who guided Howard to his first NCAA Tournament bid in 1981, stood and watched the nets fall.

“I remember Kenny at DeMatha when he was playing for Morgan [Wootten], he said with a smile. “Then he went to Duke and played for [Mike Krzyzewski]. Guess he learned a few lessons from those two.

Even 30 minutes after the final buzzer, standing in front of his players with the net wrapped around his neck – “My new necklace”, he said – Blakeney was struggling to drink it all down.

“It’s surreal, isn’t it guys?” he said. “It’s one thing to dream of doing something like that. It’s another to actually do it. I mean, it’s real. We really did.

It’s entirely possible that Howard, with a 22-12 record, will be sent to Dayton, Ohio as the No. 16 seed for a qualifying game. Blakeney didn’t care. “Wherever they tell us to go, we’ll just get on the bus and go,” he said.

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Wherever the Bison are going, it won’t be by bus. When you do the NCAA tournament, you travel by charter plane. The last time Blakeney did it was in 1994, when he was a junior at Duke. He is 51 now and, like his school, has traveled many roads to get back to where he was on Saturday.

“I’m speechless,” Blakeney told his players, who laughed because he’s almost never speechless. “What a race.”

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