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North Carolina Central tops Hampton for the MEAC title

LeVelle Moton’s Eagles are going dancing for the third time since they joined the Division I ranks in 2011.

North Carolina Central v UC Davis Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

For the third time since they fully joined the Division I ranks in 2011, LeVelle Moton and the North Carolina Central Eagles are going dancing.

A No. 6 seed entering the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, the Eagles beat Coppin State, Savannah State and Morgan State to reach Saturday’s final in Norfolk. Moton said the team didn’t get back to their hotel until 1 a.m. after topping Morgan on Friday, but that didn’t seem to bother them.

To get them pumped up, the 43-year-old head coach turned to Eminem lyrics for inspiration.

The Eagles slowed down the pace and handled top-seeded Hampton, winning 71-63. This will be NC Central’s first back-to-back trip to the NCAA tournament.

Pablo Rivas led the way off-the-bench for the Eagles with 22 points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal. Hampton was powered by Malique Trent-Street’s 15 points.

This was the last MEAC tournament for the Hampton Pirates, who will begin play in the Big South next season. The Pirates won the MEAC’s regular season title, so they’ll go on to play in the NIT, via an automatic bid for the regular season champ.

Moton has been Central’s head coach since 2009 and has worked magic with his players since the Eagles made the jump to Division I. He often poaches talented players from the transfer pool and JUCO ranks and quickly meshes them together. This season was no exception: Eleven of the 15 players on NC Central’s roster this season previously played at another college.

It was a tight game from start to finish, but Central built an eight-point lead early in the second half with an 11-2 run. It was a stretch highlighted by three-point swishes — one from Rivas and two from John Guerra. Rivas got his start at Sheridan College, a JUCO in Wyoming, and Guerra was previously a member of the United States Naval Academy’s basketball team.

Guerra scored 12 points and grabbed five boards.

Hampton later grabbed the lead for a brief moment with an 8-0 run, but Central responded and held on. What the Eagles really did was slow down the Pirates. They’re a faster team that likes to play in transition, but Central didn’t turn the ball over often or give away many rebounds. 63 points is the fourth lowest the Pirates have scored in a game this year.

Central sealed the win when Rivas flushed two free throws to put the Eagles up by four with about 90 seconds remaining. Jordan Perkins increased the Eagles lead to seven points when he hit one-of-two charity stripe shots moments later, then took a steal coast-to-coast for a lay-up.

This is the fourth time Moton has led his squad to a post-season tournament. The Eagles made the big dance for the first time in 2014, then made another trip there last year. Moton’s side appeared in the NIT in 2015.

However, Moton’s teams are 0-3 in those larger tournaments. The Eagles now wait for Selection Sunday to find out who they’ll face for an upset opportunity.