DES MOINES — They had waited three decades to return here, and for a brief, pulsating moment the Howard Bison threatened to leave an imprint on the NCAA tournament that would last forever. They played fearless basketball. Their shots kept dropping. The faces on the Kansas bench turned nervous. Deep into the first half, the No. 16 seed from Georgia Avenue had the defending national champions wondering what had hit them.
Playing in front of Vice President Harris, a Howard alum who arrived at Wells Fargo Arena shortly before halftime, the Bison could cling to the top-seeded Jayhawks for only so long. Howard’s first tournament appearance since 1992 ended with a 96-68 loss, a final score that belied the momentary scare Howard gave the Jayhawks in the first half and the triumphant season that preceded it.
In the summer, Coach Kenny Blakeney gathered his players, many of them freshmen and transfers, and told them they could be special. They gathered one final time Thursday in a small room down the hall from their locker room, where Harris walked in and addressed them.
“It’s amazing to know we have people of such power that are affiliated with us and supporting us at the same time,” freshman Shy Odom said. “She just told us that even though we didn’t come up with the victory that we’re still winners and what we have done this year is history.”
“For me, the student experience is so important,” Blakeney said. “These are opportunities and memories that they’ll remember for life. It’s a day and a season these guys will never forget. They’re connected as brothers. It’s a full season of growth that, for me, means more than what we’ve done on the court.”
In jerseys inscribed with “The Mecca,” the school’s nickname, Howard capped its historic MEAC championship season with a performance it could be proud of. Blakeney did not change his aggressive style, deploying a full-court, man-to-man press after made baskets, imploring fast breaks after Kansas misses and substituting all five players at a time. The Bison pushed the pace, cut backdoor, launched threes and harassed Kansas ballhandlers.
“They played even faster than we even thought they would,” Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts said.
From the start, the Bison showed they would not back down. After their first basket, a dunk by senior forward Steve Settle III, Howard’s press forced a scrum and a jump ball. Odom, who led the Bison with 15 points, muscled his way to a three-point play. Point guard Elijah Hawkins’s quickness challenged Kansas’s defenders.
“I think they expected us to back down,” graduate transfer Jelani Williams said. “They didn’t play with a lot of energy in the first half. They were a little sloppy, and they allowed us to get into our stuff. They didn’t make anything really difficult on us, so we had open looks. In March, if you make shots, you can stay in any game.”
“They weren’t ready for us,” Hawkins said. “They were expecting something totally different. Us jumping on them in the first half kind of startled them.”
Neither team took control early. When Williams made a steal that led to a breakaway layup for Ose Okojie, the Bison nudged ahead 32-31 with 6:10 left in the first half, a score that prompted double-takes across the country. As late as 4:59 in the half, the Bison were tied.
“We were feeling March,” Williams said. “When we made that run in the first half, it felt like we were going to go win the game.”
Even playing without Coach Bill Self in the wake of his heart procedure, the Jayhawks are good and deep enough to overwhelm most any opponent. Gradey Dick found his shooting touch, and Jalen Wilson, Ernest Udeh Jr. and KJ Adams Jr. jackhammered alley-oops out of the sky. The Jayhawks ended the first half with a 17-4 flurry, heading into halftime with a 50-37 lead and a heavy dose of relief.
The Bison used their brief tournament stay to spread messages beyond basketball. In support of a cause the team has championed all season, Williams entered the arena in a T-shirt that read, “There’s a Black Maternal Health Crisis in the US. Black women deserve to survive childbirth.”
Even in @MarchMadnessMBB , we know our work is bigger than basketball.— Howard Men’s Basketball (@HUMensBB) March 16, 2023
Team captain Jelani Williams and Assistant Coach Tyler Thornton keeping Black Maternal Health advocacy at the forefront pre-game.
Learn why this is so important to us @uninterrupted https://t.co/22YuTsJSLD pic.twitter.com/23ZkP1yuzi
During the national anthem, while the rest of the Bison stood in a line on the court, Blakeney and Williams sat on the bench next to one another, heads bowed. Williams has sat during the anthem since he played at Penn to highlight racial inequality in America.
“It’s something I’ve been doing all year, so it wouldn’t be right of me not to bring it with me wherever we go,” Williams said. “There are just things that I believe in, things that have to change in this country. Part of our responsibility as people with platforms, people in the spotlight, is to continue to bring that message with you. What better place to do it than one of the highest-rated athletic events in the country?”
Blakeney has sat next to Williams during the anthem all season, which Williams said “means everything,” calling the support “a testament to him as a man.” When Blakeney was recruiting Williams, he read a Philadelphia Inquirer story that detailed the backlash Williams and Penn teammates received for sitting during the anthem. During an exhibition game in the fall, Blakeney looked at the bench and saw Williams sitting by himself.
“Immediately in my head, that story came back to mind,” Blakeney said. “I never wanted him to feel like he was alone, so that’s why I sat with him all year.”
On Wednesday, Blakeney was asked at a news conference about Hawkins’s gaudy three-point percentage. “Our point guard was a 3.75 student this semester and he interned on Capitol Hill and was part of the Jan. 6 hearings,” Blakeney replied. “So we are proud of that as well.”
As Blakeney walked off the court, he waved to the Howard section with both hands. Taking Howard to the tournament is a coaching feat that attracts interest from other schools. Georgetown, another school with an elite academic profile in Blakeney’s home city, needs a basketball coach. Blakeney said Georgetown has not approached him about its vacancy. He demurred when asked whether he would be interested in the job.
“I’m the coach at Howard, and we’re just finishing up our season,” Blakeney said. “The only thing I’m looking forward to is having some Mexican food and margaritas. That’s the next thing on my plate.”
From before tip through the second half, Bison fans intermittently chanted, “H-U!” Band members leaned back and responded, “You know!” The Bison did not last long in their tournament return, but they had let everyone know they were there.
“You saw early on the love and the joy that we play with with each other,” Williams said. “This was a special year. We did a lot of historic things this year. That’s a credit to this group, these special personalities, these special people. Our spirit as a group was special. That’s the best way to describe it.”