On a team dominated by Michael Britt and Earl Jones, it's easy to overlook members of the University of the District of Columbia's supporting cast.
But, according to Firebirds Coach Wil Jones, Britt and Earl Jones might have problems getting started if it weren't for point guard Kenny Payne.
"Kenny might be overlooked by lay people but not by the people who know the game," the coach said. "He's the settling force for us. He handles the ball most of the time and rarely makes a turnover. Kenny's quiet and just goes out every game and does his job. He can score anytime he wants, is strong and can outjump most guards his height."
One day last week, Jones told his team that he would cancel practice if Payne could dunk the ball. One of the players immediately threw a lob pass that Payne, who is 6-foot-1, grabbed in midair and slammed through.
"He dunked it with ease," Jones said. "But I told the players I wasn't looking and we practiced, anyway."
Jones said Payne will be the key when the defending NCAA Division II champions (27-2) play Sacred Heart (27-4) in a quarterfinal game at Southern Connecticut State in New Haven Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The winner will become one of the final four in Springfield, Mass., March 25-26.
Payne started slowly this season.
"I was committing turnovers, missing easy shots, I didn't know what the problem was," said Payne, who was all-Met at Mackin and played 1 1/2 years at Rutgers before transferring to UDC. "I lost a bit of confidence. I was trying to make things happen that weren't there. But I was determined to work it out."
Jones didn't lose faith in Payne, starting him every game. "When Payne came here, I got the key I needed," Jones said. "I know what he can do. He kicked butt at Rutgers as a freshman. He's a superb point guard. Kenny Payne runs this team."
Payne finally put things together midway in the season. His shooting percentage, scoring and assist averages improved and his turnovers dropped significantly. Payne is averaging 8.2 points, 4.8 assists and has 38 steals. He played well last weekend in the Firebirds' 34-17 win over stalling Randolph-Macon and held St. Augustine's top guard, Emanuel Chapman, without a field goal in a 93-88 victory in the South Atlantic Regional final.
"I want to be on the floor in the tough games, so I have to play well," Payne said. "I just have to play smart and do the things I can do well. These last three games, I've tried to put forth a better effort."
Payne said he left Rutgers in the middle of his sophomore season because he couldn't adjust to Coach Tom Young's philosophy. "I preferred Coach Jones' running style and I wanted to come home," he said.
"We have a team of unselfish players and, if we play together, we should win the title again," said Payne, hoping his unselfish style of play might catch the eye of an NBA scout.
"Everyone gets his points on this team. I could score 20 a game, but someone has to run the team. Bird (Britt) and Earl (Jones) are the scorers here. And that doesn't bother me a bit. It's fun playing with them."