The scoreboard said that the NC Central basketball team lost at Florida A&M 59-50 on Monday. But the way things have been going for the Eagles during this disjointed season, just being on the court playing a game that matters made it feel like a win in the eyes of coach LeVelle Moton.
“Any opportunity that we’ve had to play, we got better,” Moton said in a prophetic statement made before the loss in Tallahassee. “Even if we lost, we got better because we haven’t played basketball.
“The only way you can get better is to play the game, and we had an opportunity to play against someone that didn’t look like us, with a different jersey on, where we didn’t know or expect what was coming, where we had had to game plan and scout. It was really different. It felt like we haven’t played basketball in two years.”
Actually, the Eagles only went 49 days without being on the court thanks to three separate pauses for COVID-19 issues and the cancellation or postponement of eight games.
Moton said it felt as if he and his team spent more time in quarantine than they did in practice during that time. That inactivity has only added to the challenge of starting back up again.
Although the Eagles have played five games since their return — including Tuesday’s 60-47 loss in a rematch with FAMU — it’s almost as if they’ve begun a new season while their opponents are already well on their way toward reaching their peak.
“We’re all creatures of habit, so my concern was that we never developed any habits,” Moton said of the layoff. “There’s only so much 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 basketball that you can play. That’s been our practices, pretty much. We’re so far behind. We don’t look like a North Carolina Central basketball team. We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there, so we’ve got to hurry up and turn things around.”
NCCU’s battle with COVID began even before the season did when it paused practice because of at least one positive case just two weeks before its opening game at Iowa on Nov. 26.
The virus struck again after a 73-67 loss at North Carolina on Dec. 12 — in a matchup that was thrown together hastily after both teams had other opponents drop out of regularly scheduled games — and continued to plague the Eagles for more than a month.
The situation became so frustrating that Moton seriously considered following the lead of his school’s football team, which decided not to participate in a planned spring season, by opting out for the remainder of its schedule.
“I told them, ‘I’m here for y’all. Whatever you want to do, I’m willing to do,’” Moton said. “‘If you want to cancel the season, I understand. If you want to go ahead, I understand. You make the call and I’ll stand by you.’
“They made the decision to continue. It takes a certain fortitude (to go on). We have some seniors and they’re a little older, so they know this is their last go around. They want to make the most of their senior year.”
NCCU’s road back began on Jan. 29 after Moton’s scheduling coordinator, Reggie Sharp, cast a wide net looking for anyone to play as a tuneup before facing Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference competition.
The Eagles’ 94-61 victory against winless Carver College, a non-NCAA historically black school from Atlanta, was followed by back-to-back wins against South Carolina State. Even after the sweep of the Bulldogs, senior point guard Jordan Perkins said he and his teammates are still fighting to get back into a routine again.
“I feel like I’m not in a rhythm at all. Being a point guard, you have to be in rhythm to be good,” said Perkins, the team’s leader with 44 assists. “It doesn’t happen overnight. We’re just staying poised, staying focused. Me and the guys are just figuring it out on the court.”
The biggest obstacle is conditioning.
“This is easily the worst conditioned team I’ve played for,” Perkins said. “But it’s only because of COVID. You can still play, but it’s like your body just isn’t doing the same. We need to take these next couple of weeks and turn our level of intensity up so we can get our legs back right.”
There’s not a lot of time left for that to happen. After Tuesday’s loss at FAMU, the Eagles had only six games left on their schedule.
While Moton’s focus is on preparing his team to be at its best for the upcoming MEAC Tournament, where the NCCU will try to earn its fifth straight NCAA bid, he understands that every chance it gets to play from here on out is a moment to savor.
“I want them to understand that, despite all the circumstances and challenges, it is a blessing to be out here on this floor,” Moton said of his players, who were 4-5 (2-2 MEAC). “Any time you step between the lines, whether you have five people at practice or the entire team, your responsibility is to go hard and honor those that came before you and pave the way for those that will come after.”