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31 years later, Howard gets another shot at Kansas in the NCAA tournament

Bryce Harris celebrates after Howard defeated Norfolk State to clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
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The group text made up of members of Howard’s last NCAA men’s basketball tournament team lit up after the Bison ended a three-decades-long drought by knocking off Norfolk State in Saturday’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament final.

“We never thought it would take 31 years,” said Howard Holley, a senior guard on the 1991-92 team who watched Saturday’s game while out to brunch. “It got to a point where you didn’t expect it to happen, but we’re ecstatic. Credit to the coaching staff.”

Holley couldn’t help but notice how history seemed to repeat itself over the weekend. On March 7, 1992, Holley made a free throw with 11 seconds remaining to give Howard a two-point lead over Florida A&M at Norfolk’s Scope Arena. MEAC player of the year Delon Turner missed a putback at the buzzer on the Rattlers’ ensuing possession, clinching Howard’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1981. In Saturday’s game, which took place in the same venue, Howard’s Jelani Williams sank a pair of free throws with 6.1 seconds left to put the Bison ahead by one before Norfolk State forward Kris Bankston’s layup hit the bottom of the rim as time expired.

Then, on Sunday, Howard learned its first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament: No. 1 seed Kansas, the same matchup that awaited the Bison in 1992.

“I guess that’s the universe bringing things full circle,” Holley said.

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While this year’s team is hoping for a different result Thursday in Des Moines than the 100-67 loss the Jayhawks dealt Howard at University of Dayton Arena on March 20, 1992, a defeat wouldn’t tarnish a historic season for fourth-year coach Kenny Blakeney’s team. It didn’t 31 years ago, either.

“If somebody had told me early in the season we’d reach the tournament, I’d have said, ‘You’re out of your damn mind,’” Howard Coach Butch Beard told The Washington Post a few days before the Bison lost to Kansas in 1992. “It’s a helluva Cinderella story. It’s a nice first step.”

Howard was picked to finish sixth in the MEAC in 1991-92 after losing its top three scorers from the team that went 8-20 in Beard’s first season the previous year. Thanks to a brutal nonconference schedule that featured road games against Louisville, Florida, Minnesota, Miami, Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Bison began Beard’s second season 2-9.

Holley said an embarrassing home loss to Division II Paine College during that stretch was the “catalyst to turning things around.” The Bison won six of their first eight games in conference play to improve to 8-11 overall.

“I’m happy where we are but not pleased,” Beard told reporters at the end of January. “Pleased would mean we’re over .500. The day you get satisfied is the day you don’t grow.”

Howard entered the MEAC tournament as the No. 1 seed and survived a scare from Bethune-Cookman in the quarterfinals. The next night, the Bison nearly blew a 17-point lead in the second half before holding off South Carolina State to advance to the final. Holley scored a game-high 19 points off the bench.

A D.C. native who starred in basketball, football and baseball at Episcopal High in Alexandria, Holley won a Division II basketball title as a freshman at the University of Lowell — now Massachusetts Lowell — in 1988. After transferring to Howard two years later, Holley walked on to the team as a senior and carved out a role on Beard’s important second unit. The group of reserves — Milan Brown, Ron Cole, Art Crowder, Ronney Gibbs and Holley — called themselves the Horsemen.

The Horsemen fueled Howard’s furious rally from a 19-point second-half deficit to defeat Florida A&M in the MEAC title game. Brown, an assistant coach at Pittsburgh who tweeted video of the final seconds of that win, as called by Dan Patrick, on Saturday, led the way with 13 points. Holley, who made three free throws in the final 1:21, was named the tournament’s MVP.

“This is a feeling I can’t explain right now,” Holley told reporters after the game. “It’ll hit me upside the head pretty soon. I’m really blessed.”

The next day, the Bison were relieved to find out they wouldn’t have to face No. 1 Duke in the first round. The Blue Devils lost two games all season and would go on to win the national title. Blakeney, the former DeMatha standout who was in tears after his team cut down the nets Saturday, was a redshirt freshman on that loaded Duke squad.

Big Eight champion Kansas, which entered the tournament 26-4, built a 16-point halftime lead against Howard in their Midwest region matchup in prime time, but spirits were high in the Bison locker room.

“We were representing so many others before us at Howard,” Holley said. “We were hanging close in the first half, and when we came back out, we were like: ‘We’re in this. I know their butts are tightening right now, because we really shouldn’t be this close.’ ”

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After Howard pulled within 52-40 with 15:31 to play, the non-Kansas fans in attendance threw their support behind the Bison.

“With its spirited pep band providing the impetus and the school’s furry mascot adding the gyrations at midcourt, Howard drew any neutral observers in the crowd over to its side,” The Washington Post reported.

Kansas responded with a 25-8 run to pull away. Freshman center Greg Ostertag led the Jayhawks with 16 points off the bench. Senior guard Julius McNeil led Howard, which committed 23 turnovers and shot 4 for 18 from three-point range, with 12 points in defeat.

“They played our tails off, but over 40 minutes, if we matched their intensity, I thought it would turn out the way it did,” Kansas Coach Roy Williams said. The Jayhawks were upset by No. 9 seed Texas El Paso in the second round.

“I learned one thing that I will go back and put in the computer,” Beard said after his team fell to 17-14. “I have to go out and recruit bigger athletes in order to compete at this level.”

After going 10-18 and 10-17 over the next two seasons, Beard was hired as the New Jersey Nets’ coach in June 1994. Howard has had seven coaches and three winning seasons since, including the past two years under Blakeney. Frankie Allen led the Bison to an 18-13 record in 2001-02, but they lost to Hampton in the MEAC title game and wouldn’t make it back until this year.

Besides their first-round opponents and the manner in which they won their conference tournaments, Holley sees other similarities between Howard’s two most recent NCAA tournament teams.

“They also played nine or 10 players the entire season,” Holley said of Blakeney’s team, which features seven players who average at least 7.1 points. “We didn’t really have that star player that was going to average 24 points. You never knew who was going to step up, and we had players that could step up any day, any time. We pressed the issue from a defensive standpoint.”

Holley, who works as an account executive and still lives in the D.C. area, isn’t making the trip to Des Moines for Thursday’s game, but he’ll be following closely, along with his former teammates.

“The ’92 team is definitely in their corner,” Holley said.