Each new hug produced a new flood of tears. When freshman Shy Odom, the MEAC Tournament MVP, wrapped him up, yelling, “Coach, I love you, I love you!” Blakeney couldn’t even answer. A moment later, when President Howard Wayne AI Frederick arrived, it took Blakeney a few seconds to stand. When he did, he cried on Frederick’s shoulder and said, “Thank you, thank 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 in the door.”
Saturday was a long time coming for Blakeney and Howard. The Bisons went 4-29 in their first season and played just five games in 2020-21. But Blakeney’s recruiting began to take off a year ago, and Howard went 16-13. This season brought 22 wins, the MEAC regular season title and now — finally — the tournament title and the first trip to the NCAA Tournament since Butch Beard was Howard’s coach in 1992.
“Wow,” Blakeney said quietly as he stood in front of his team, the net around his neck and the MEAC trophy at his side. He paused and began choking again. “Simply wow. I mean, holy s—. Everything you went through, training at 6 in the morning, getting kicked out of the locker room – all of it – was for this.”
This was an extraordinary basketball game. Norfolk State has won the last two MEAC titles and has been the class of the conference along with North Carolina Central for most of coach Robert Jones’ 10 seasons at the school. Howard went into 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 last 20 minutes, there were six ties and 11 lead changes. The two back-to-back baskets were as close to a run as anyone got.
“It was everything we expected,” said Jelani Williams of Howard. “It was what a championship game should be.”
Williams and Odom were the final pieces Blakeney added this season. Williams came to Howard as a graduate student after four years at Pennsylvania. Earlier this season, Williams said he decided to play at Howard because he wanted to be the leader of a team that has a chance to win a championship.
That dream became a reality Saturday, though for a while it looked like the Bison would come around briefly. Two free throws by Joe Bryant Jr. from Norfolk State with 23.7 seconds left gave the Spartans a 64-60 lead. But Marcus Dockery drained a 3-pointer — Howard’s only 3-pointer of the second half — with 13.2 seconds left, and Blakeney called its final timeout.
The Bison came out in their “41” defense, meaning they were trying to deny any inbounds pass. It worked. The Spartans had a miscommunication, and the inbound pass ended up going past everyone and out of bounds.
The clock never moved. When Howard came in, there was no doubt where the ball was going: toward Williams. He already had 18 points — the only Howard player in double figures — and was the Bison’s rock until the end.
“I should be a tough guy, especially in close games,” he said. “I understand that role as well want that role.”
Williams caught the ball at the top of the key and dug into the teeth of the Norfolk State defense. As the Spartans collapsed on him, he twisted his body and drew the foul. The Spartans complained early and often about fouls, but this time there was no argument.
Williams drained the first shot to tie the score at 64. Jones called a timeout to force him to consider the second.
He is. “I thought, ‘This is why I came to Howard,'” Williams said, still clutching the ball he shot. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment. It’s me never let this ball go. I knew this was my last chance to go to NCAAs and I was going to make it happen.”
He made a free throw for a 65-64 lead with 6.1 seconds left. NSU drove the ball to midcourt and called its final timeout with 4.3 seconds left. Kris Bankston came to the infield and he drove the baseline. But the Bison defense came to meet him, and his shot hit the bottom of the rim as time expired.
Heartbreak for the Spartans. Euphoria for the Bisons. It took several minutes for the Norfolk State players to find their feet to walk to the locker room. Howard’s celebration was already big by then. Former Howard players flooded the floor. Former coach AB Williamson, who guided Howard to its first NCAA Tournament bid in 1981, stood and watched the nets come down.
“I remember Kenny at DeMatha when he played for Morgan (Wootten),” he said with a smile. “Then he went to Duke and played for (Mike Krzyzewski). I guess he learned a few lessons from those two.”
Even 30 minutes after the final siren, standing in front of his players with a net around his neck — “My new necklace,” he said — Blakeney was having trouble drinking it all in.
“It’s surreal, isn’t it people?” He said. “It’s one thing to dream about doing something like this. It’s another thing to actually do it. I mean, it really is. We really nailed it.”
It’s entirely possible that Howard, 22-12, will be sent to Dayton, Ohio, as the No. 16 seed for the play-in game. Blakeney doesn’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 Bisons go, it won’t be by bus. When you come to the NCAA tournament, you travel on a charter plane. The last time Blakeney did it was in 1994, when he was a Duke junior. He is now 51 years old and, like his school, has come a long way 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.”