The 3,000 miles separating Howard's Burr Gymnasium from Los Angeles is a trifling distance compared to how far the Bison basketball team has traveled in the last three days.
The Bison (17-11) are heading to the NCAA West Regional and a Thursday date with Wyoming at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. They sweated out their second straight frantic finish today, beating North Carolina A&T, 66-63, to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament before 4,140 fans at the Coliseum and become the first MEAC team in the NCAA tournament.
Memories of the humiliating defeats and the sloppy victories, the talk of too much talent and not enough heart, were swept away in the post-game delirium that carried from court to locker room.
"A lot of people in D.C. doubted us," said Junior James Ratiff, who discovered the joys of passing and sensible shooting to finish with 16 points and six assists. "People thought (Coach) A.B. (Williamson) would lose his job, they thought we were going nowhere. Eat your heart out, D.C.!"
Larry Spriggs reminded anyone within range of his voice that the Bison are indeed going somewhere.
L.A.! L.A.!," boomed Spriggs, voted the tournament's most valuable player for the third straight year. "We've been doing a lot of traveling on the East coast and down South. But this is TRAVELING."
Through the revelry, Rodney Wright remained placid. He didn't even smile for the team picture. That figured. The 5-foot-10 junior guard was an iceman all day, but especially when it counted most. He sank four free throws in the final 17 seconds to twice extend a one-point lead to three.
Wright also coordinated a Bison attack that varied from run-and-shoot in the first half to spread-and-wait in the second. He scored 13 points and had three assists and was outstanding the entire tournament.
Wright was determined to prove a point. He wasn't chosen for the all-MEAC team before the start of the tournament. That hurt.
"I felt I had to come out and prove to these people that I am THE guard in the MEAC," he said. "It gave me my goal to play hard and direct my squad like I was supposed to. For three days, I directed the Bison."
Immediately after the game, amid the frenzy and between hugs, a dazed Williamson said, "I'm not feeling anything. I'm numb."
Later, Williamson composed himself and spoke of the value of having a veteran team.
"We've been here before and that means a lot," he said. "Maybe last year, Rodney Wright doesn't hit the free throws."
It was suggested that perhaps Williamson had felt pressure to win the tournament to save his job.
"The only pressure I was thinking about was getting to the NCAA and getting that money (Howard will receive more than $90,000 for its appearance)," Williamson said. "I wanted to be the first MEAC representative in the NCAA."
The coach of a team that struggled and never lived up to its potential during the season, Williamson might have been on the hot seat. But against the Aggies, winners of 13 straight until today, and four straight MEAC tournament finals against Howard, he turned down the heat.
To counter the Aggie press, Howard ran in the first half and led, 40-34 at intermission. The last time the Bison trailed was 22-20 with 7:10 remaining. The game was tied twice, but an 8-2 Howard streak, including consecutive baskets by Bernard Perry, gave the Bison some room.
Spriggs scored 10 of his 15 points in the half. Ratiff also scored 10, as did center James Terry, who continued his solid play.Terry finished with 14 points, most on dunks, and made 18 of 21 shots in the tournament.
The Aggies (21-7) got most of their offense in the first half room James Anderson, with 14 points. But the 6-foot-2 guard, contained by Wright and reserve Louis Wilson in the second half, scored just two more points.
Howard's second-half lead grew to eight within the first minute, then steadily diminished as the Aggies fought back. With 11 minutes left, Howard went to its spread offense, designed to draw fouls, and waited for the good shot. It worked, as the Bison scored on five straight possessions.
Still, the Aggies, shooting well from outside, kept coming on. The Howard lead never exceeded three points in the last three minutes. Free throws won it.
With Howard ahead, 60-59, Perry made two foul shots to give Howard a three-point lead with 47 seconds left. Joe Binion, who scored 16 for the Aggies, followed his own miss and it was a one-point game again with 34 seconds left.
Eight seconds later, a pass from Spriggs to Ratiff was knocked out of bounds by Ratiff and James Horace. Ratiff won the jump ball and Wright was fouled with 17 seconds left. Howard called a timeout.
"I think you're gonna make it and I think you do, too," Williamson said he told Wright. He was right.
Binion drove the base line to make the score 64-63 with eight seconds left. Spriggs threw the ball inbounds to Wright, who was fouled by Horace. Four seconds showed as Wright made the first of the one and one, then the second. The Bison was champs.