When the University of the District of Columbia won the NCAA Division II basketball championship here last year, Johnny Jones led the cheers from 40 rows back at the civic center.
"I had just transferred (from Fairmont State) and had to sit in the stands with the students," said the 6-foot-8 sophomore, a former all-Met from Spingarn. "I did a lot of cheering and a lot of waiting. I watched and told myself UDC would be back here next year and I wanted one of those (championship) watches.
"Even though UDC won, I saw where I could have helped. Now, I have my opportunity and I'm not going to waste it. Everyone, including the trainers, is very confident we can win again. This trip will be much sweeter than last year's."
Jones and the Firebirds (28-2), who are seeking to become the first Division II team to win consecutive championships since Kentucky Wesleyan in 1968-69, will play Morningside of Iowa (26-5) in a semifinal game Friday night at 8.
Wright State of Ohio (26-4) faces Bakersfield State of California (24-5) in the other semifinal, at 6. The winners will play for the national title Saturday night at 8. The Division II women's final will be played at 6.
UDC, which shares the nation's longest winning streak (23) with Division I Houston, didn't show any signs of butterflies this afternoon as it ran through a one-hour workout. The players went through several drills, spiced with an impromptu dunking exhibition, before leaving to visit Children's Hospital and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"No reason to be nervous. We've been here before," said UDC guard Greg Carson. "If anything, the pressure is on Morningside. This is their first trip here. We're loose and confident because we're playing very well now, everyone's healthy and we want to take another championship back to D.C. This one is very important to us."
Carson, Jones and the fast-breaking Firebirds hope Morningside doesn't alter its year-long running style in favor of the delay game. UDC, averaging 90.7 points per game, was forced to play stallball in two of its last three games, although the Firebirds showed they also can play that style well.
Morningside Coach Dan Callahan, who also prefers a man-to-man defense, said he has no plans for a slowdown despite his team's height disadvantage. The Chiefs' tallest player is 6-8 center David Krantz (11.1 points, 6.0 rebounds), who will have the task of containing UDC's 7-foot all-America center, Earl Jones (22.7 points, 9.7 rebounds).
That leaves either 6-6 Steve Brandsma (13.9 points) or Bob Beneke (13.8, 6.9 rebounds) to contend with the Firebirds' team leader and master of dunks, 6-7 Michael Britt. Voted the MVP here last year, Britt is averaging 23.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
"This game is very important to us, our school and the D.C. community," said UDC Coach Wil Jones. "I don't know much about Morningside except we have a height advantage. I do know we plan to give it our best shot."