It hadn’t been done since 1987. Back when acid-washed jeans and Eddie Murphy ran Hollywood. Back when mixtapes were ACTUALLY tapes. The Howard men’s basketball team hadn’t won a MEAC title outright since Full House debuted.
That all changed on a Thursday night in March. On Howard University’s Charter Day, to be more precise. On a night when the university’s swimming and diving team was honored for winning their conference only a few days before, the hoopers decided that they’d get in on the action, too.
Senior night is always an emotional time for players and coaches alike. But this senior night held a special weight—win the MEAC. It would have been easy to succumb to the pressure of the moment. To fold when so much was going on around them. It’s a lot of pressure to win the last game of the season that Burr gymnasium will see. Even more to accomplish a feat that hadn’t been done in 35 years.
How did Howard University beat NSU?
The Bison were ready. And didn’t blink once.
Howard jumped out to an early 10-2 lead. They were propelled by their defense and outside shooting. Two threes and a Shy Odom steal and a thunderous finish started off the festivities. Howard University didn’t just come to win, they came to dominate. They would not trail at any point in the game.
In retrospect, the beginning of the game foretold what was to come in the contest. Despite the fact that the Bison would hang up 87 points, it was their defense that was the key to the victory. Remember, the Bison held the MEAC’s top-scoring team to 67 points, below their season average.
Norfolk State is a dangerous team. They feature guard Joe Bryant Jr. and forward Kris Bankston, the third and fifth-highest-scoring players in the league this season. Howard head coach Kenny Blakeney had a plan and executed it brilliantly. He started by having point guard Elijah Hawkins take the defensive assignment in the first half of guarding Bryant, who also leads the Spartans in assists (3.3 per game).
It was a calculated move by Blakeney. Bryant is listed at 220 pounds. Hawkins is listed at 152. Conventional wisdom would indicate that Bryant was too big to be checked by the lighter and shorter Hawkins. If Hawkins, the team’s leading scorer and assist man, had gotten into foul trouble trying to start the scoring dynamo, it could have ruined the night and possibly cost Howard the outright championship.
Instead, Blakeney challenged his most important offensive player to pick up Bryant at halfcourt and make life miserable for the NSU star. Hawkins’ quickness which he’s used all season to get past defenders, now kept Bryant out of the paint. He flustered Bryant, making the guard work so far from the basket that he usually passed to one of his teammates.
By forcing the ball out of Bryant’s hands, other NSU players had to make shots and plays. The usually lethal Spartan offense sputtered to a 22/60 shooting night from the floor.
That decision and the constant energy on defense from the entire roster lit the fuse on an explosive night for the Bison. They took those Spartan misses and attacked in transition. Hawkins and Jelani Williams, the senior and captain of this team from Washington, DC, pushed the pace to get the ball in the frontcourt. The duo combined for 10 assists.
More than a few of those passes were caught by Bryce Harris, who had a plethora of rim-rattling dunks on his way to 22 points. And when the ball didn’t find its way to him, the rest of the roster was more than willing to oblige in adding to the scoring total—particularly from deep. Six different players hit a three-pointer. They all contributed to a blistering 14/26 (53.8%) shooting display from behind the arc.
In the end, the game was about defense and long-distance shots. But more specifically, it was about a team peaking at the right time, as they head into MEAC tournament play. It was the perfect ending to a history-making regular season.
The MEAC tournament starts March 8th in Norfolk. Tickets are now on sale.