NORFOLK, Va. — North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton looked at his phone and couldn’t help but laugh.
Early this season, when the Eagles were struggling on defense and incorporating freshmen into the lineup, his phone was pretty quiet. But on Saturday, it was blowing up with congratulatory text messages after the Eagles used a late 11-0 run to break a 58-all tie and beat Hampton 71-63 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Association championship.
“This championship is different,” Moton said, because it was unexpected. “To be honest, a lot of people gave up on this team.”
The championship — and automatic NCAA Tournament berth — is the second in a row and third in five years for the Eagles (19-15).
“We’ve created the standard at North Carolina Central and I’m proud because these guys and the other guys in the locker room, they upheld that standard,” Moton said.
Pablo Rivas had 22 points and the Eagles took command after neither team scored for more than two minutes.
“We just started coming up with some stops,” said Rivas, whom Moton described as his best player, and who agreed to come off the bench after starting just one game.
Jordan Perkins added 13 points and nine assists and John Guerra scored 12 for the Eagles, including a pair of 3-pointers early in the second half. The junior had arrived at Scope Arena for the start of the tournament earlier in the week having made just five 3s all season.
“They had some guys that we kind of dared to make plays and they made them,” Hampton coach Ed Joyner Jr. said.
The loss came in the Pirates’ final MEAC game because they are moving to the Big South next season.
Malique Trent-Street scored 15 points to lead the Pirates (19-15), who also were seeking their third MEAC title in five years. Instead, as the regular-season champions, they are assured a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.
“The NIT is cool, but we wanted to leave the MEAC with the championship,” Trent-Street said.
Akim Mitchell and Greg Heckstall each added 11 points for the Pirates, who made just 4 of 18 3-point tries (22.2 percent).
A 3-pointer by Kalin Fisher pulled Hampton even at 58-all with 4:24 to play, but the Pirates didn’t score again until Trent-Street’s layup with 18 seconds to go.
“I stayed up all night trying to develop a game plan because the first time we played them, that didn’t work,” Moton said, referencing an 86-70 home loss to the Pirates on Feb. 5.
N.C. Central: The Eagles have made winning a habit in recent years, and did so this year with two freshmen — Reggie Gardner Jr. (11.0 ppg) and Jordan Perkins (8.3 ppg, 5.4 apg) — figuring prominently in the backcourt. They combined with veterans Raasean Davis, Rivas and Guerra to make NCCU a dangerous team to take lightly in the postseason.
Hampton: The Pirates were sloppy with the ball in the closing minutes, ruining their chances at a victory in front of a partisan and pro-Hampton crowd. The Pirates also got little help from their bench, which was outscored 28-9 by the NCCU reserves.
N.C. Central will head to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years.
The Pirates’ loss means the NIT is their consolation prize.