|Black college sports hang tough before, during COVID pandemic|
|Fewer games didn't diminish milestones|
|Published Tuesday, December 29, 2020 10:00 pm|
|PHOTO | TROY HULL|
|The CIAA basketball tournament completed its final run in Charlotte before COVID-19 wrecked postseason aspirations for teams across the nation.|
This is normally the week I count down the top 10 HBCU sports moments of the year.
But a virus called COVID-19 changed all that. Entire sports seasons have been wiped out, athletic budgets shredded along with staff furloughs and layoffs. And for every game that’s played, two more are either canceled or postponed.
Still, for those of us fortunate enough to cover HBCU sports, there’s no such thing as a bad year. No top 10, but we were never bored.
The CIAA and SIAC managed to finish their basketball tournaments before COVID canceled the MEAC and SWAC.
Fayetteville State women defeated Bowie State for their first CIAA title since 2012 (yeah, seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?). The conference was looking to send four women’s teams to the NCAA Division II tournament: FSU, Bowie State, Lincoln (Pa.) and Virginia Union. The women really rocked it last season.
Meanwhile, Virginia Union coach AnnMarie Gilbert shocked Panther Nation by leaving for Division I Detroit Mercy. Gilbert led VUU to five postseason tournaments in five seasons.
On the men’s side, Winston-Salem State and Fayetteville State played a thriller of a final. The Rams pulled out the one-point win on two free throws by Robert Colon with 4.6 seconds left, giving second-year coach Cleo Hill Jr. his second career CIAA championship. His first was at Shaw.
Alfonza Carter retired as Shaw’s athletic director, but not before hiring former WSSU-Hampton-Maryland Eastern Shore men’s basketball coach Bobby Collins. Another Ram joined the Bears when WSSU associate AD George Knox replaced Carter at the helm. All starting to come back to you now, eh?
In the MEAC, North Carolina Central women pulled the trifecta against rival North Carolina A&T by defeating the Lady Aggies three times – the third in the quarterfinals of the MEAC tournament, which sent them to their first tourney semifinal since DI reclassification.
But the men had everyone’s attention. After defeating A&T to win the regular season title, the Eagles were the favorite to win a program-record fourth straight championship. Then an automatic berth to the NCAA and maybe, finally, hopefully, a first tourney win. But it was not to be.
The virus kept growing; George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery – among too many others – were murdered and suddenly sports didn’t seem all that important.
For a while. People can take only so much tragedy before needing an escape.
Then a 6-foot-11, 19-year-old, five-star recruit born in the South Sudan and raised in California named Makur Maker announced he was attending Howard on a basketball scholarship. The first five-star recruit at an HBCU in 40 years. All of a sudden, HBCUs became the “Black” thing to do.
But not even Maker could compete with the “Prime Time” show that was about to invade the SWAC’s Jackson State.
Deion Sanders’ hiring set the HBCU world on fire. The press conference alone was worth the price of admission. While some initially blew off Sanders’ hire as a publicity stunt, he has since hired a football staff with an impressive pedigree, and snagged the best FCS recruiting class ever by an HBCU on signing day.
With basketball and football seasons either shortened, canceled or postponed, it may not have been your typical banner HBCU sports year, but it sure beats the heck out of covering anybody else.
Bonitta Best is sports editor at The Triangle Tribune in Durham.
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