University of Miami

UM men edge N.C. Central in NIT, face Alabama next

UM guard Sheldon McClellan goes to the basket against North Carolina Central during the second half of their NIT game at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
UM guard Sheldon McClellan goes to the basket against North Carolina Central during the second half of their NIT game at BankUnited Center in Coral Gables on Tuesday, March 17, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

They didn’t particularly want to be playing a National Invitation Tournament opener at the BankUnited Center on Tuesday night. Judging by the sparse crowd of 1,612, University of Miami fans weren’t too excited about it, either.

In fact, some UM students were seen snagging the free giveaway St. Patrick’s Day “Kiss Me I’m a Hurricane” T-shirts and bolting without watching a minute of the Canes’ 75-71 victory over North Carolina Central, an entertaining team with an entertaining coach and an equally entertaining pep band.

The Hurricanes would rather have been taking a flight to an NCAA Tournament game, like their female counterparts, who got a warm ovation from the fans when they were recognized during a timeout before boarding a bus to the airport.

But, the UM men’s team didn’t make the cut, so they had to find a way to get motivated and muster enough energy to survive the Eagles’ late-game rally and a combined 44 points from Jordan Parks and Nimrod Hilliard.

UM (22-12) advanced to an 11 a.m. Saturday second-round home game against No. 6 seed Alabama (19-14). The game will be televised on ESPN.

“At this point, the only thing that matters is advancing,” UM coach Jim Larrañaga said. “We are happy to have won the game and advanced. You’re playing one of the top-100 teams in the country, a team that went 16-0 undefeated in their league and probably should be playing in the NCAA Tournament.”

Despite going undefeated in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and having one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, N.C. Central is largely unknown nationally.

“It’s tough for us to receive the proper respect,” said Eagles coach LeVelle Moton, whose postgame news conference was as impressive as Parks’ 23 second-half points. “Being in Tobacco Road, it’s like we have the Kardashians, and we’re not Kim. We’re one of the others. We’re fighting for respect, and I hope we proved to America that we’re not just some HBCU [historically black college and university], we’re a Division I basketball team.’’

And it is a team with a fascinating history when it comes to postseason basketball.

Seventy-one years ago this week, on a Sunday March morning in 1944, during a time of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, the men's basketball team from the North Carolina College for Negroes (now NCCU) was barred from competing in the NIT or the NCAA Tournament. So, behind locked gym doors, in front of no fans and a referee, scorer and reporter who kept it secret, the Eagles played against a team from the Duke School of Medicine on the campus of NCCU in the first racially integrated college basketball game in the South.

The Eagles won 88-44.

The “Secret Game” was kept secret for more half a century until a Duke historian wrote an article that ran in The New York Times on Sunday, March 31, 1996.

This Eagles team has also overcome adversity. Anthony McDaniel’s sister died in a car crash while heading to the airport to watch him play. Parks’ mother is battling cancer. And Jeremiah Ingram’s girlfriend was in a coma after a car accident.

“We’re fighters,” Moton said. “If you knew all those kids have been through, for them to still be here competing is a testament to their character and overall guts. It may be shocking to others what we did, but not to me.”

UM fended off the Eagles with near-perfect free-throw shooting (23 of 25), and balanced scoring. LeComte had 18, Sheldon McClellan 15, Tonye Jekiri 11 and Deandre Burnett 10.

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