By Tony McClean
Updated: December 5, 2006
NEW YORK — It’s still early in the HBCU basketball season, however if you’re looking for a sleeper squad or a team to watch down the road, you may wanna take a look down at the nation’s capital.
For the first time since the 2001-02 season, the Howard University men’s hoop team is over the .500 mark. While a 4-3 mark is hardly cause to get votes in the nation’s top 25, a win against MEAC foe Hampton in the inaugural Big Apple Classic should open some eyes.
The Bison’s 95-84 win over the Pirates Saturday gave them its first win against their HU rivals since February of 2003. It was also their third straight win after a 1-3 start. “This was a big win for our basketball program,” said Howard’s second year head coach Gil Jackson.
“To come to Madison Square Garden and play on this stage and to get a victory against one of the quality athletic programs in our conference means a lot to this program.”
Tied 41-41 at the half, sophomore forward Eugene Myatt and senior guard Will Gant keyed a 12-2 run midway through the second half that all but decided the outcome. Both teams shot over 50 percent from the field in the opening half.
The Bison kept the Pirates (2-7, 0-2 MEAC) at bay by converting from the free throw line, hitting 26 of 32 (83 percent) in the second stanza. Gant (8 of 8) and Myatt (7 of 8) did much of the damage.
“This win was a small step for us”, coach Jackson added. “We can reflect on it that much. It was a big win, but Hampton is still a tough team to beat. They’re still a very, very good basketball team”.
Despite playing their fourth game in the last seven days, Hampton coach Kevin Nickelberry didn’t use that as an excuse. “They handled our defensive pressure all night”, Nickelberry added.
“Our goal was to not give up easy layups in the end, but that didn’t happen. We probably fouled too much down the stretch and they made their free throws and it hurt us in the end”.
The Pirates, who’ve lost six of their last seven, led by sophomore guard Demario Mattox with 19 points, freshman forward Mike Freeman with 15 and freshman guard Vincent Simpson with 14.
Another key to the Bison victory was the play of the bench, led by freshman Kandi Mukole (9 points, 7 rebounds), senior guard Darek Mitchell (8 points) and another freshman, Curtis White (7 points).
“That’s an area where we did not have last season,” said Howard senior forward Darryl Hudson (18 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists). “Our young players are beginning to come around and we all understand our roles.”
After a slow start last year, the Bison ended the season by winning five of their last seven games. Among the wins was a first round MEAC Tournament victory over North Carolina A&T, HU’s first tourney win since 2002.
“We definitely have tried to use that to help us on the early part of the season”, coach Jackson said. “The key thing we’re trying to do is to change the culture of this basketball program”.
“We want to come into tight games like this and close them out. It’s been tough for us because of our past history, but we’ve been trying to stay positive and be prepared. We just don’t want to beat ourselves.
With a highly regarded freshman class and four returning starters, the Hampton win could be just the start for a Bison squad that has already shown some growth in the early season.
PANTHERS CRUISE IN BIG APPLE OPENER
With four of their five starters finishing in double digits, Virginia Union (2-0, 2-0 CIAA) crushed rival Bowie State 87-42 in the opening game of the inaugural Big Apple Classic Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
VUU jumped out to a 16-2 advantage during the first five minutes and were never threatened by the Bears (3-1, 1-1 CIAA). BSU shot a dismal 27 percent from the field and committed 14 turnovers in the first half, which resulted into 20 Virginia Union points.
Greg Thondique paced VUU with a game-high 19 points and 10 rebounds. The other Panthers to score in double figures were Steve Miller (16 points, seven steals), Chris Greene and Brandon Byerson with 13 points each. Byerson also added 11 boards.