By Joshua Heron
Howard University News Service
Confetti and tears followed as Howard University marched into the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time since 1992 after defeating the Norfolk State University 65-64, capturing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Tournament.
“What a battle,” Coach Kenny Blakeney said after his basketball players improved to 22-12 on the year and affirmed the program’s resurrection. “I am a little speechless.”
“We have a team of guys that people didn’t believe in,” Blakeney said. “To see this moment come to fruition after a lot of hard work on everybody’s part is absolutely wonderful.”
A battle it was indeed. The down-to-the-wire consisted of 15 lead changes and 11 ties. However, Blakeney is familiar with successful battles.
Kenny Blakeney was a freshman on Duke Blue Devils’ 1992 NCAA Championship squad. In that same tournament bracket 31 years ago was Howard University, which would not experience such glory again until 2023.
Up four with 23.7 seconds left, it seemed Robert Jones’ Norfolk State was heading to the NCAA Division I tournament for the third straight year.
Bison Marcus Dockery, a 44% three-point shooter on the season, knocked down his first three of the game with 13.2 seconds remaining, narrowing the margin to 64-63. The sophomore guardwas cold all night, but a precise pass from freshman forward Shy Odom landed right where Dockery needed it.
Odom finished the game with nine points and seven boards. The freshman earned the tournament’s Outstanding Performer award and made the All-Tournament team along with sophomore guard Bryce Harris.
Norfolk’s Caheim Brown failed to find Spartans star Joe Bryant on the ensuing inbound pass, giving Kenny Blakeney’s young men hope. Graduate guard Jelani Williams capitalized on the turnover. He found himself at the free throw line with six seconds left, the chance to give Howard the lead and the opportunity of cementing his name on the Hilltop.
Calm. Collected. Cash. Howard takes the lead 65-64.
Those two points Williams a game-leading 20 points. He finished shooting 54.5% from the field.
Williams credited his late-game heroics with a toddler routine initiated by his father.
“When I was young, I was terrible at shooting free throws,” Williams recalled. “He taught me how to slow down by singing a lullaby. It’s something that he used to sing to me to get me to go to sleep as a 2-year-old. And when we used to go out to shoot, he would show me how he’d do it.”
“And so obviously, you got the crowd and everything going crazy, and you understand the depth of the moment,” he said. “And I just sang myself a lullaby and did my routine. And, you know, thankfully, they both went down. But I tried to clear my mind as best as possible.”
However, six seconds is like an eternity in basketball. The Spartans advanced the ball with a timeout. With senior guard Joe Bryant with the hot hand, dropping all his 18 points in the second half, Norfolk attempted to find its star.
Howard’s defense forced its opponents elsewhere, and power forward graduate Kris Bankston, who got into foul trouble early in the second half, drove to the basket to find no success as the clock hit zero.
Blakeney’s team enters the tournament as the No. 16 seed. Howard will look to upset Bill Self’s top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks at 2 p.m. EST Thursday, March 16, on TBS.
Joshua Heron covers sports for HUNewsService.com.