gnore the scoreboard and play. That might be the best strategy for Hampton University's men and women to achieve their goal of cutting down the nets at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
The HU women (25-5, 16-0 MEAC) blew through the last six weeks of the regular season on the way to being the first team to go unbeaten in conference play in six years.
The Pirates' men (14-16, 11-5 MEAC), on the other hand, walked a tightrope all season. That they made it to the opposite platform two of every three trips without falling in league play speaks to their improvement and reliance on intensity.
"It's all about mental focus," forward Du'Vaughn Maxwell said. "It's scary to watch us when we're locked in. When we're not locked in, we're not ourselves. Even to be on the same team, it's scary to watch us lock in, to see how focused we are and how great we play defense when we're locked in. But when we're not, we're not a good team at all. When we are, we're the best team in the MEAC."
Others may take issue, notably regular-season champ Norfolk State and No. 2 seed North Carolina Central, both of which defeated the Pirates in tight games. Perhaps Savannah State, which tied the Pirates for third place, but lost to them in overtime, thus elevating HU to the No. 3 seed and an all-important early bye.
Maybe even Baltimore brethren Morgan State and Coppin State, which split four achingly close games with HU.
Point being that Hampton is well acquainted with tournament-style basketball. The Pirates played a remarkable 21 games decided by seven points or fewer.
"Everybody's coming out hard," HU freshman point guard Deron Powers said, "and I feel like the fact that we played so many close games, that experience in close-game situations will help us down the stretch."
Their last two games were illustrative of their season. They trailed Bethune-Cookman by 11 points in the second half before rallying to win 75-66. They trailed N.C. Central by 20 midway through the second half, but cut the margin to two before falling 68-64.
"I think we've got the confidence that we can play and beat anybody," head coach Ed Joyner Jr., said, "but you've got to come to play and you've got to play for 40 minutes. But I do like where we are. We get a week to kind of rest our legs and do some things, that's what we're going to get down to. We'll come out and see what happens after that."
The Pirates' tournament experience begins 6 p.m. Thursday when they face the winner of the Delaware State-Howard game. Had they fallen to the No. 4 or 5 seed, they would have begun tournament play Monday.
"It was very important," Joyner said of the bye, "because if we hadn't, I think we'd be playing on Monday and that isn't enough time to get ourselves back together. We have time now to rest our legs and clean up some things that we need to clean up. But I think we need rest right now."
One more encouraging sign for the Pirates is the emergence of Dwight Meikle. The 6-8 redshirt freshman scored a career-best 16 points in two of the final three games and almost single-handedly sparked the Pirates' offense in the comeback against N.C. Central.
He can provide another option, to accompany Powers (11.9 ppg), Maxwell (10.2 ppg) and post man Emmanuel Okoroba (8.3 ppg).
"We've seen it coming," Joyner said Thursday night. "That's the young man that we felt we were getting when we recruited him. If we're going to advance and do some things in the tournament, he's going to be key for us. I thought he played well and he played well within himself."
While HU's men focus on better starts and avoiding the need for desperate comebacks, the Lady Pirates aim to avoid complacency and overconfidence. They've won 16 in a row, they won the MEAC regular season race by three games and haven't been severely challenged since mid-January.
Hampton won its last six games by an average of 27.8 points and held opponents to 37.8 points per game. In the latest NCAA statistics, HU is second in scoring defense (48 ppg), third in field goal percentage defense (.322) and fifth in 3-point field goal defense (.246).
Some of that is a product of the conference, since the MEAC is among the lower-rated basketball leagues. But HU also went 9-5 outside its league and 3-3 versus teams from power conferences.
"We're trying not to look at the scoreboard," senior forward Keiara Avant said. "We're not really thinking about what the score is. We're concentrating on rotating defensively and trying to get to the right spots. If we're in the right rotation, then we can force turnovers and that helps us execute on offense. Our defense speaks for itself and that's when our offense comes into play."
Avant (16.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg) is having a Player of the Year-caliber season. She is one of four double-figure scorers, along with Nicole Hamilton (12 ppg), Olivia Allen (11.6 ppg) and Alyssa Bennett (9.9 ppg), who is HU's most gifted player and capable of guarding anyone from point guards to power forwards.
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