NORFOLK, Va. – N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton ends every practice by picking someone on his team and asking them to make a pressure free throw.
That practice paid off in a big way Saturday as the Eagles’ free throw shooting carried them to a 71-62 victory against Morgan State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game, and into the NCAA tournament. The Eagles will arrive riding a 20-game winning streak.
“We set goals at the beginning of the year and this was one of them,” senior guard Emmanuel Chapman said. “But this wasn’t the last goal, so it’s great, it’s tremendous, it’s all of those great adjectives that you want to us for games like this, but we still feel like we have unfinished business.”
A first-round exit as the favorite last season only heightened their desire to make a better showing this time around.
“If someone was going to beat us, they were going to have to beat us,” Jeremy Ingram said. “It wasn’t going to be because of our effort.”
Jeremy Ingram scored 29 points and the Eagles (28-5) used an 8-1 run to get some separation, then held on with their free throw shooting. They made 17 straight in one stretch and 25 of 30 after halftime, helping to overcome the fact that they made just six field goals in the second half.
Karamo Jawara added 10 points for the Eagles (28-5), who won the tournament in only their seventh season at the Division I level.
“I can’t sit here and make like I remember everything that happened,” Moton, in his fifth year as coach, said, the freshly clipped net hanging around his neck and the glistening tournament trophy beside him. “I kind of lost it there for a while.”
Ian Chiles scored 26 points to lead Morgan State (15-16), which was appearing in the championship for the sixth time in eight seasons under coach Todd Bozeman and seeking its fourth championship. Chiles and fellow senior Justin Black played in three championship games, but came up short each time.
“It’s tough,” said Chiles, a 7-foot-2 senior. “We fought every time. Today the better team won.”
Anthony Hubbard added 12 points and Blake Bozeman 10 for the Bears.
The game was close throughout, but Ingram and Jawara each scored four points during the short run that finished with 9 minutes to go and the Eagles leading 50-43. Morgan State pulled to 55-52 with 4:31 to play, but Jordan Parks hit four straight free throws to rebuild the lead and the Eagles held on.
N.C. Central finished 26 for 33 from the line; the Bears were 13 of 19.
N.C. Central, a former Division II power, finished 18-1 against MEAC competition this year and hasn’t lost since Jan. 11 against Florida A&M.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Moton said. “I don’t know about these guys, but it’s tremendous.”
The game was knotted at 31 at halftime, and tied three more times — at 33, 39 and 42 — before Jawara’s dunk sparked the 8-1 burst. Ingram added two free throws, Jawara hit two and Ingram hit two more. The Eagles hit just two field goals in the last 13 minutes, a shot-clock-beating 3-point heave by Reggie Groves with 4:45 to play, and Ingram’s 17-footer with 1:57 left. That gave N.C. Central a 61-54 lead, and the Eagles’ free throw shooting kept them ahead.
The Eagles made just six field goals in the second half, and the Bears made just nine.