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Howard wins an exhilarating MEAC championship sport to punch its NCAA ticket

NORFOLK — Kenny Blakeney couldn’t stop crying. It was 3:30 on Saturday afternoon at Scope Arena, Howard had just ended a 31-year NCAA tournament drought with a heart-stopping 65-64 victory over Norfolk State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament final, and the tears were flowing everywhere.But Blakeney was the leader in waterworks.Each new hug produced

Howard wins an exhilarating MEAC championship sport to punch its NCAA ticket

NORFOLK — Kenny Blakeney couldn’t cease crying. It was 3:30 on Saturday afternoon at Scope Area, Howard had simply ended a 31-year NCAA event drought with a heart-stopping 65-64 victory over Norfolk State within the Mid-Jap Athletic Convention event remaining, and the tears had been flowing all over the place.

However Blakeney was the chief in waterworks.

Every new hug produced one other torrent of tears. When freshman Shy Odom, the MVP of the MEAC event, wrapped him up, screaming, “Coach, I really like you, I really like you!” Blakeney couldn’t even reply. A second later, when Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick came to visit, it took Blakeney just a few seconds to face up. When he did, he wept on Frederick’s shoulder and stated, “Thank, you, thanks, thanks.”

It was Frederick who instructed Athletic Director Kery Davis to rent Blakeney 4 springs in the past, regardless that Blakeney had by no means been a head coach. “As quickly as I met him, I stated, ‘Rent him,’ ” Frederick stated. “I knew he was our man the minute he walked within the door.”

Saturday was a very long time coming for Blakeney and for Howard. The Bison had been 4-29 his first season and solely obtained to play 5 video games within the coronavirus-plagued 2020-21 season. However Blakeney’s recruiting started to kick in a yr in the past, and Howard went 16-13. This season has produced 22 wins, a MEAC common season title and now — lastly — the event title and the primary journey to the NCAA event since Butch Beard was Howard’s coach in 1992.

“Wow,” Blakeney stated softly standing in entrance of his staff, the web round his neck and the MEAC trophy subsequent to him. He paused and began to choke up once more. “Simply wow. I imply, holy s—. All the things you’ve gone via, the 6 a.m. practices, getting thrown out of the locker room — all of it — was for this.”

This was a rare basketball sport. Norfolk State had gained the previous two MEAC titles and has been the category of the convention together with North Carolina Central for many of Coach Robert Jones’s 10 seasons on the faculty. Howard went into halftime with a 33-27 lead, however the Spartans scored the primary 5 factors of the second half and neither staff led by greater than 4 the remainder of the best way.

Within the remaining 20 minutes, there have been six ties and 11 lead adjustments. Two straight baskets had been as near a run as anybody got here.

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“It was every little thing we anticipated,” Howard’s Jelani Williams stated. “It was what a championship sport is meant to be.”

Williams and Odom had been the ultimate items Blakeney added this season. Williams got here to Howard as a graduate pupil after 4 years at Pennsylvania. Earlier this season, Williams stated he determined to play at Howard as a result of he wished to be the chief on a staff that had an opportunity to win a championship.

That dream turned actual Saturday, though it appeared for some time as if the Bison would come up simply brief. Two free throws by Norfolk State’s Joe Bryant Jr. with 23.7 seconds left gave the Spartans a 64-60 lead. However Marcus Dockery drained a three-pointer — Howard’s solely three-pointer of the second half — with 13.2 seconds left, and Blakeney known as his remaining timeout.

The Bison got here out of their “41” protection, which means they had been attempting to disclaim any inbounds go. It labored. The Spartans had a miscommunication, and the inbounds go ended up going previous everybody and out of bounds.

The clock by no means moved. When Howard inbounded, there was little doubt the place the ball was going: to Williams. He already had 18 factors — the one Howard participant in double figures — and he had been the Bison’s rock down the stretch.

“I’m purported to be the powerful man, particularly in shut video games,” he stated. “I perceive that position, and I need that position.”

Williams caught the ball on the high of the important thing and drove into the tooth of the Norfolk State protection. Because the Spartans collapsed on him, he twisted his physique and drew a foul. The Spartans had complained about fouls early and sometimes, however this time there was no arguing.

Williams drained the primary shot to tie the rating at 64. Jones known as a timeout to make him take into consideration the second.

He did. “I assumed, ‘This is the reason I got here to Howard,’ ” Williams stated, nonetheless clutching the ball he made the photographs with. “I’ve waited all my life for a second like this. I’m by no means letting go of this ball. I knew this was my final probability to go to the NCAAs, and I used to be going to make it occur.”

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He made the free throw for a 65-64 lead with 6.1 seconds left. NSU obtained the ball to midcourt and known as its remaining timeout with 4.3 seconds to go. The inbounds got here to Kris Bankston, and he drove the baseline. However the Bison protection got here to fulfill him, and his shot hit the underside of the rim as time ran out.

Heartbreak for the Spartans. Euphoria for the Bison. It took a number of minutes for the Norfolk State gamers to seek out their legs to stroll to the locker room. The Howard celebration was effectively underway by then. Former Howard gamers flooded the ground. Former coach A.B. Williamson, who guided Howard to its first NCAA event bid in 1981, stood and watched because the nets got here down.

“I keep in mind Kenny at DeMatha when he performed for Morgan [Wootten],” he stated with a smile. “Then he went to Duke and performed for [Mike Krzyzewski]. I assume he discovered just a few classes from these two.”

Even half-hour after the ultimate buzzer, standing in entrance of his gamers with the web draped round his neck — “My new necklace,” he stated — Blakeney was having hassle consuming all of it in.

“It’s surreal, isn’t it guys?” he stated. “It’s one factor to dream about doing one thing like this. It’s one other factor to really do it. I imply, it’s actual. We actually did it.”

It’s completely potential Howard, with a 22-12 document, can be despatched to Dayton, Ohio, as a No. 16 seed for a play-in sport. Blakeney couldn’t care much less. “Wherever they inform us to go, we’ll simply get on the bus and go,” he stated.

Wherever the Bison go, it gained’t be by bus. Whenever you make the NCAA event, you journey by constitution airplane. The final time Blakeney did that was 1994, when he was a Duke junior. He’s 51 now and, like his faculty, has been down plenty of roads to get again to the place he was Saturday.

“I’m speechless,” Blakeney stated to his gamers, who laughed as a result of he’s virtually by no means speechless. “What a run.”

And what an ending.

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