Robert McCullum needed his team to win the next four minutes.
That was the gist of the third-year Florida A&M coach’s halftime speech to his team as they stared down a nine-point deficit at Iowa State on New Year’s Eve. The Rattlers would win those next four minutes, and in the process win arguably the biggest game in program history.
Pegged as 25.5-point underdogs, FAMU left Hilton Coliseum with the first win over a power conference team in school history after sophomore guard Rod Melton Jr. hit a deep, dramatic two-point jumper with 19 seconds left to give the Rattlers a one-point lead. This would ultimately serve as the game winner, and led to a long, anxious walk to the locker room.
“We were trying to temper the excitement until we got to the locker room,” McCullum said. “That’s my policy: We celebrate in the locker room and not on the floor. So of course we could barely wait until we got to the locker room. But it was just a room of happy, happy young men.”
The historic win also set off a flurry of activity that strained McCullum’s iPhone battery over the next day-and-a-half.
The third-year FAMU coach has been a staple in the college basketball world for the past four decades. In addition to stints leading Western Michigan and South Florida, McCullum was a part of Final Four runs as an assistant at Florida and Oregon, and also served on staff at Illinois and Kansas State, among other places.
That led to a hot phone for 36 hours and counting.
“Well, quite frankly from Tuesday night on it really hasn’t stopped,” he said. “It’s more text messages than calls, but I’ve had at least 150 to 200 [texts] since the game.”
The win — paired with a road win that preceded it at Seattle — was doubly important for a team going through the typical rigor of a MEAC non-conference schedule. FAMU has not yet played a home game, and won’t until hosting Morgan State on Jan. 11. Along with Alabama State, that’s the latest “first” home game a team will play this season. That’s the reality for schools in leagues like the MEAC and SWAC, where guarantee games at high major competition eat up the bulk of the non-conference schedule.
Aside from a trip to the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, eight of FAMU’s 11 games this year have been guarantee games, which contributed to an 0-9 start to the season.
“Each year we go into each season expecting to play ‘x-number’ of games against high major programs, and those are games you aren’t expected to win,” McCullum said. “But we were playing better, we had begun to play better, and gave ourselves a chance to win at Portland [on Dec. 16]. We felt like we were headed in the right direction.”
That two-possession loss at Portland did eventually roll into the Rattlers getting their first win at Seattle on Dec. 21. The Rattlers broke into the win column against the Redhawks in a game KenPom gave them just a 13 percent chance of winning after big efforts from Melton Jr. (17 points) and fellow guard MJ Randolph (16 points, 8 rebounds).
Those two would then continue that momentum the next time out in the historic win at Iowa State, which KenPom had given them just a one percent chance of winning. Melton Jr. in particular had 15 second half points, many on crusading drives to the basket, as the Rattlers erased that halftime deficit.
“We were fortunate to be only down nine points at halftime, and I reminded them how important the first four minutes of the second half were going to be,” McCullum said. “Iowa State scored the first basket [after halftime] on a three so we were quickly down 12 points. But after that it was kind of our show. We fought them tooth and nail and went up. It was winning those first four minutes of the second half, that was the message at halftime.”
Junior forward DJ Jones has also been a big part of the winning streak, averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds over the two games. And that number — two — is significant in its own right. It doubles the Rattlers non-conference wins over Division I competition over the three seasons leading into this one. In particular, the win over the Cyclones snapped an 0-72 skid against major conference teams over the past two decades.
After the marquee win, FAMU heads into conference play with its goal, according to McCullum, to first and foremost win the MEAC regular season title. That is the highest prize on the table for the Rattlers this year, as the program deals with a self-imposed postseason ban based on NCAA infractions in the athletic department that preceded McCullum’s time at the school. Although they were picked ninth in the league’s preseason coaches poll, the recent two-game winning streak makes that goal certainly seem plausible for a team with a dynamic backcourt.
However the season shakes out, the Rattlers will always have that moment in Ames.
“As important as the win was, my greatest joy comes from seeing the smiles on their faces,” McCullum said.