Rivals Clash in Season Finale
WASHINGTON, DC - There will be a lot on the line when the Pirates of Hampton University and the Bison of Howard University close out the regular season at 8 pm in Burr Gymnasium on Thursday, March 3. In addition to the usual "Real HU" rivalry that always surrounds any competition between these two institutions of higher learning, there is the added factor of tournament seedings for next week's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament which gets underway on March 8 at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, NC.
"You could not write a better script," said Howard Coach Kevin Nickelberry. "When you take into account the fact that I used to coach there and we have a coach who also coached there and that my family and friends will be there and their players who are from this area will be playing before their family and friends, it adds even more to the Hampton-Howard rivalry."
The Pirates (20-8, 10-5 in the MEAC) used a win over the Bison in the conference opener in December as a springboard for what would be a spectacular start of the season. Hampton would manufacture an impressive 1905 start before it hit a recent slide of three straight conference losses. In the process, the Pirates who were once in a position to win the regular season title, slipped and are now in a three-way battle with Morgan State and Coppin State for the Number 2 seed. Bethune-Cookman has earned the Number 1 seed.
The Bison (6-22 overall, 4-11 in the MEAC) have had one of the more bizarre seasons in recent history. It all started with high hopes and expectations under Nickelberry, who is in his first year at the Hilltop. But those hopes were quickly dashed when Howard lost its top recruit, 6-8 freshman center Theodore Boyomo to a knee injury in an exhibition game. If that was not enough to create havoc, the Bison lost its best player, junior guard Calvin Thompson to a knee injury in the second game of the season at Purdue and shelved him for the season.
To compound matters even more, Kyle Riley, the team's only senior, went down with a serious ankle sprain in that same game and was sidelined for the next six games.
The injuries depleted the Bison squad and forced Nickelberry to add three walk-ons to the team. Howard's problems were further challenging with the death of a family of one of the players that forced more missed games along with the suspension of three players for the season and illness to yet another.
It seemed as if the season might be a wash. But Coach Nickelberry and his staff gathered the troops and made some minor adjustments that proved to be successful when the Bison won four of five during a home stretch.
Since that time, Howard has been in the games but a lack of depth has been the deciding factor. The Bison starters are averaging between 30 and 38 minutes while the bench has been outscored in every game this season.
The Pirates will be a formidable opponent for Howard. They have been successful by using a combination of solid team defense and balanced scoring. Hampton ranks among the nation's best in defense, allowing only 61 points per game, and in blocked shots with over 5 per game.
Offensively, Darrion Pellum (18 points per game), Kwame Morgan (15 points per game) and Charles Funches (12 points) all average in double figures.
The young Bison, who start three sophomores and a freshman with Riley, counter with the scoring of Mike Phillips (13.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Dadrian Collins (11.3 ppg) and Anton Dickerson (12.0 ppg). Alphonso Leary, a 6-8 freshman from Norfolk, VA, has emerged as one of the top young players in the conference. He has been named the Rookie of the Week the past two weeks and has averaged 20 points and 7 rebounds the past four games.
Riley, who has been converted into a point guard, has been the key to the team's improved play over the second half of the season. He ranks among the conference leaders in assists and he has upped his scoring average while also making his mark as a defensive force.
Howard will be trying to improve its seeding with a win over the Pirates and more importantly gain some momentum for the tournament. The Bison are currently battling Maryland Eastern Shore, South Carolina State and Delaware State for the bottom four seeds, 8-11.
"For us, this game is really big," said Nickelberry. "Here you have the last game of the regular season and there is a lot on the line. A win for us and we could move up three or four places (for seeding). But it is also big for them because they could get the second seed. It is going to be exciting."