Just before Christmas, Howard suffered a 95-61 loss at Illinois, one of the worst basketball defeats in the school's history. But unlike many players, who might have wanted to forget that nightmarish night, the Bison have committed to memory that 34-point defeat.
"There was no way we should get beat that bad by anyone," said forward-center Robert McIllwaine. "That game served as a motivator to show people we aren't that bad. We don't score many points, but we try to beat everyone else as bad as Illinois beat us. If we put in the kind of effort they (Illinois) did, we might not score 95 points but we should win the game."
With inspired performances from the 6-foot-8 McIllwaine and a quartet of guards, Howard has played superbly since the Illinois game. The Bison have won seven straight games, two short of the school record set in 1980-81. And with a decisive homecourt victory over four-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament champion North Carolina A&T, they have emerged as the team to beat in the league.
Howard's 83-72 victory at Morgan State Saturday night gave the Bison a 9-5 record, 3-0 in the MEAC. The Bison will play host to first-year conference member Coppin State (5-10, 3-1) tonight at Burr Gymnasium at 8 o'clock.
Of the seven victories, the players and Coach A.B. Williamson point to the North Carolina A&T game as the one that provided the incentive and confidence the players needed.
"I never said it at the time, but it was imperative for us to beat A&T," said Williamson, who had a 163-115 record coming into his 11th season at Howard. "We had lost to them five straight times and our kids really wanted to win this one badly."
Junior guard Fred Hill, who is averaging 11.4 points per game and leads the Bison in steals with 20, said the victory gave Howard a much-needed boost.
"Losing to them had become a mental thing with us. Last season and early this year, we had lapses and blew big leads. We're concentrating on playing the entire 40 minutes and not letting up. We've begun to show some consistency and we have to maintain that."
In addition to McIllwaine's much-improved play in the pivot (7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game), Williamson said his decision to alternate his guards is the major reason for his team's improved play.
"We had five guards early and we knew it would be impossible for all of them to play," Williamson said. "But we lost George Hamilton (medical redshirt) and we decided to alternate the four guards, depending on the situation. It meant big adjustments for some guys, Hill for example, but it's working."
Hill appeared to be the early loser in the plan, averaging only 24 minutes compared to last year's 32. On the other hand, senior Jeff Williams saw his playing time double to 12 minutes a game.
"It bothered me at first, but now I don't mind it," Hill said. "We can go all out and wear people down and we're stronger in the final minutes of the game. Everyone is playing and contributing, and the guards who are going good that night play longer."
Hill is the most prolific shooter of the four guards. Mike Jones, a 6-2 junior (4.8 points, second in assists and third in steals in 17 minutes per game), is the best defensive guard. Williams had scored 35 points in his last three games but suffered a slightly bruised foot against Morgan State.
The big surprise has been 6-2 junior William Stuart, a transfer from Allegheny Community College. The former Crossland High School star is averaging 8.0 points and leads the Bison in assists (4.5 per game) and is second in steals while averaging 25 minutes.
"I thought I'd play between 10-15 minutes per game, but I'm glad it has turned out this way," Stuart said. "I like the rotation system. We can preserve our strength and be strong at the end of the game. My job is to run the offense and give them the big spark off the bench."
Jones, son of former ABA all-star and Washington Bullets guard Jimmy Jones, said it doesn't matter to him if he starts or comes off the bench.
"As long as you know you might play longer if you play well when you get in, it doesn't matter," Jones said. "Everyone has confidence in one another and tries that much harder. That extra playing time motivates each of us to play harder. All of us have to continue to play well because we still feel we have to prove ourselves to everyone."