With an overall record of 5-16, it is sometimes hard to see the progress being made at Howard. But after this past weekend’s sweep of North Carolina A&T and Norfolk State, the Bison appear to be making significant strides in the right direction.
Beating “Norfolk State is big because they’re at the top of our conference, and we’re trying to get there,” Coach Gil Jackson said. “One of our goals is to move to the top of the conference. Well, in order to get to the top of the conference, we have to beat teams at the top of the conference, and we haven’t been able to do that. This was a big step in that direction.”
Norfolk State (7-12, 5-3) came into the game in second place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference standings. The Spartans were riding a five-game winning streak and their only conference loss since the new year began was to MEAC leader, Morgan State. They had won eight in a row against Howard and held a 27-8 advantage in the series.
Howard’s 68-62 victory over Norfolk State on Monday night was significant in many ways. It was the first win against the Spartans in Jackson’s tenure at the school and it followed closely on the heels of the Bison’s win against South Carolina State, also a first for a Jackson-coached team. It showed the Bison’s resilience as they fell behind, fought back then held off a late rally by Norfolk State. And it provided a major confidence boost for the players who endured a 14-game losing streak earlier this season. Following the victory over Norfolk State, Howard has won four of its past six games.
“I have to keep telling them: ‘We have a good team. We have a good basketball team,’” Jackson said, adding with a laugh. “And three of our top players are not even here.”
The promising start to the season, which began with an upset against Oregon State, quickly turned bleak after injuries, illness and academic issues derailed Howard. The biggest setback came when sophomore forward Adam Walker and freshmen guards Chris McHenry and Calvin Thompson were ruled academically ineligible at the start of the second semester. Walker had played 26 minutes in the win against Oregon State and McHenry was the MEAC rookie of the week in early January.
With his team’s depth severely depleted, Jackson added two non-scholarship players: C.J. Prince and Yannick Braimbridge. It took a while, but in spite of its patchwork roster of just nine players, Howard is beginning to play together. Leading-scorer Eugene Myatt deserves much of the credit for the team’s cohesiveness on the court. As usual, Myatt did everything for the Bison against Norfolk State. He finished with 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Even more impressive, he completely shut down one of the Spartan’s top players, Corey Lyons. The preseason MEAC first-team selection, who was averaging 16.2 points per game, did not score a point and went 0-for-3 from the floor.
“I thought Eugene Myatt played one of his best games,” Jackson said. “He was really focused. I thought he played a tremendous game. He was a steadying leader out there.”
As most coaches tend to do, Jackson is spending less time savoring Howard’s recent success and more time fretting about the mistakes his players continue to make. He was particularly irked at how the Bison bumbled away the final minutes of the game: rushed shots, sloppy passes and rebounds that became turnovers – all signs that the players were uptight and putting pressure on themselves not to lose the game.
“We didn’t close the game out the way we should have closed it out,” Jackson said. “That bothers me.”
As the players continue to gain confidence, they undoubtedly will become better at finishing games. Then Howard can talk seriously about moving to the top of the MEAC.
“We just keep trying to change the culture [of losing] here,” Jackson said. “We have a few people on campus who actually are starting to expect us to win some games, so that’s big.”
February 4, 2009; 5:55 AM ET
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