NORFOLK — Kenny Blakeney couldn’t stop crying. It was 3:30 on Saturday afternoon at Scope Arena, Howard had just ended a 31-year NCAA tournament drought with a heart-stopping 65-64 victory over Norfolk State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament final, and the tears were flowing everywhere.
Each new hug produced another torrent of tears. When freshman Shy Odom, the MVP of the MEAC tournament, wrapped him up, screaming, “Coach, I love you, I love you!” Blakeney couldn’t even respond. A moment later, when Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick came over, it took Blakeney a few seconds to stand up. When he did, he wept on Frederick’s shoulder and said, “Thank, you, thank you, thank you.”
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 guy the minute he walked in the door.”
Saturday was a long time coming for Blakeney and for Howard. The Bison were 4-29 his first season and only got to play five games in the coronavirus-plagued 2020-21 season. But Blakeney’s recruiting began to kick in a year ago, and Howard went 16-13. This season has produced 22 wins, a 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 softly standing in front of his team, the net around his neck and the MEAC trophy next to him. He paused and started to choke up again. “Just wow. I mean, holy s---. Everything you’ve gone through, the 6 a.m. practices, getting thrown out of the locker room — all of it — was for this.”
This was an extraordinary basketball game. Norfolk State had won the past two MEAC titles and has been the class of the conference along with North Carolina Central for most of Coach Robert Jones’s 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 final 20 minutes, there were six ties and 11 lead changes. Two straight baskets were as close to a run as anyone came.
“It was everything we expected,” Howard’s Jelani Williams said. “It was what a championship game is supposed to 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 on a team that had a chance to win a championship.
That dream became real Saturday, although it looked for a while as though the Bison would come up just short. Two free throws by Norfolk State’s Joe Bryant Jr. with 23.7 seconds left gave the Spartans a 64-60 lead. But Marcus Dockery drained a three-pointer — Howard’s only three-pointer of the second half — with 13.2 seconds left, and Blakeney called his 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 inbounds pass ended up going past everyone and out of bounds.
The clock never moved. When Howard inbounded, there was no doubt where the ball was going: to Williams. He already had 18 points — the only Howard player in double figures — and he had been the Bison’s rock down the stretch.
“I’m supposed to be the tough guy, especially in close games,” he said. “I understand that role, and I want that role.”
Williams caught the ball at the top of the key and drove into the teeth of the Norfolk State defense. As the Spartans collapsed on him, he twisted his body and drew a foul. The Spartans had complained about fouls early and often, but this time there was no arguing.
Williams drained the first shot to tie the score at 64. Jones called a timeout to make him think about the second one.
He did. “I thought, ‘This is why I came to Howard,’ ” Williams said, still clutching the ball he made the shots with. “I’ve waited all my life for a moment like this. I’m never letting go of this ball. I knew this was my last chance to go to the NCAAs, and I was going to make it happen.”
He made the free throw for a 65-64 lead with 6.1 seconds left. NSU got the ball to midcourt and called its final timeout with 4.3 seconds to go. The inbounds came to Kris Bankston, and he drove the baseline. But the Bison defense came to meet him, and his shot hit the bottom of the rim as time ran out.
Heartbreak for the Spartans. Euphoria for the Bison. It took several minutes for the Norfolk State players to find their legs to walk to the locker room. The Howard celebration was well underway by then. Former Howard players flooded the floor. Former coach A.B. Williamson, who guided Howard to its first NCAA tournament bid in 1981, stood and watched as the nets came 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 buzzer, standing in front of his players with the net draped around his neck — “My new necklace,” he said — Blakeney was having trouble drinking it all in.
“It’s surreal, isn’t it guys?” he said. “It’s one thing to dream about doing something like this. It’s another thing to actually do it. I mean, it’s real. We really did it.”
It is entirely possible Howard, with a 22-12 record, will be sent to Dayton, Ohio, as a No. 16 seed for a play-in game. Blakeney could not care less. “Wherever they tell us to go, we’ll just get on the bus and go,” he said.
Wherever the Bison go, it won’t be by bus. When you make the NCAA tournament, you travel by charter plane. The last time Blakeney did that was 1994, when he was a Duke junior. He’s 51 now and, like his school, has been down a lot of roads to get back to where he was Saturday.
“I’m speechless,” Blakeney said to his players, who laughed because he is almost never speechless. “What a run.”
And what an ending.