Howard played against Kansas in a previous NCAA tournament appearance in 1992


The group text, made up of members of Howard’s final NCAA men’s basketball tournament team, lit up after the Bison ended a three-decade-long drought by beating Norfolk State in Saturday’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament finals.

“We never thought it would take 31 years,” said Howard Holley, a senior guard on the 1991-92 team, who watched the game at brunch on Saturday. “It got to a point where you didn’t expect it, but we’re thrilled. Kudos to the coaching team.”

Holley couldn’t help but notice how history seemed to repeat itself over the weekend. On March 7, 1992, Holley took a free throw with 11 seconds remaining to give Howard a two-point lead over Florida A&M at Scope Arena in Norfolk. MEAC Player of the Year Delon Turner missed a putback on the Rattlers’ subsequent possession, earning Howard’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1981. In Saturday’s game at the same venue, Howard’s Jelani Williams penned two free throws, remaining 6.1 seconds to put the Bison up a second before Norfolk State layup Kris Bankston hit the bottom of the rim after time was up.

Then, on Sunday, Howard met his first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament: No. 1 seed Kansas, the same matchup that awaited the Bison in 1992.

“I think that’s the universe coming full circle,” Holley said.

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While this year’s team is hoping for a different result Thursday in Des Moines than the 100-67 loss the Jayhawks inflicted on Howard on March 20, 1992 at the University of Dayton Arena, a loss would mark a historic season for Kenny, coach in the fourth year, not tarnishing Blakeney’s team. Not even 31 years ago.

“If someone had told me early in the season that we were going to make the tournament, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,'” Howard coach Butch Beard told The Washington Post a few days before the Bisons’ loss to Kansas in 1992 “It’s one hell of a Cinderella story. That’s a nice first step.”

Howard was selected to finish sixth in the MEAC in 1991-92 after losing his top three scorers from the team that went 8-20 in Beard’s freshman season the previous year. Thanks to a brutal, non-conference schedule that included road games against Louisville, Florida, Minnesota, Miami, Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Bison Beards started their second season 2-9.

Holley said an embarrassing home loss to Division II Paine College during that stretch was the “catalyst to turn things around”. The Bison won six of their first eight games in conference play, improving to 8-11 overall.

“I’m happy where we are, but not satisfied,” Beard told reporters in late January. “Satisfied would mean we are above .500. The day you are happy is the day you don’t grow.”

Howard entered the MEAC tournament No. 1, surviving a scare from Bethune-Cookman in the quarterfinals. The next night, the Bison almost lost a 17-point lead in the second half before stopping South Carolina State to advance to the Finals. Holley scored a game-high 19 points from the bench.

A DC native, Holley, who played basketball, football and baseball at Episcopal High in Alexandria, won a Division II basketball title as a freshman at the University of Lowell – now Massachusetts Lowell – in 1988. After joining Howard two years later, he left Holley on foot joined the team as a senior, taking on a role in Beard’s vital second unit. The group of reservists – Milan Brown, Ron Cole, Art Crowder, Ronney Gibbs and Holley – called themselves the Riders.

The Horsemen fueled Howard’s furious second-half rally from a 19-point deficit to defeat Florida A&M in the MEAC title game. Brown, an assistant coach in Pittsburgh who tweeted a video of the final seconds of that win, as dubbed by Dan Patrick, on Saturday, led with 13 points. Holley, who took three free throws in the 1:21 final, was named tournament MVP.

“It’s a feeling I can’t explain right now,” Holley told reporters after the game. “It’s going to hit me in the head pretty soon. I am truly blessed.”

The next day, the Bisons were relieved to find out they didn’t have to face the No. 1 Duke in the first round. The Blue Devils lost two games all season and would win the national title. Blakeney, the former DeMatha standout who was in tears after his team cut the nets on Saturday, was a redshirt freshman in that loaded Duke roster.

Big Eight champion Kansas, entering the tournament 26-4, built up a 16-point halftime lead against Howard in prime time in their Midwest region matchup, but spirits in the Bison dressing room were high.

“We’ve represented so many others before us at Howard,” Holley said. “We were close in the first half and when we came back we said, ‘We’re in. I know their asses are tightening right now because we really shouldn’t be that close. ”

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After Howard drew 15:31 to 52-40, the non-Kansas fans in attendance threw their support behind the Bison.

“With his spirited pep band kicking off and the school’s furry mascot adding the spins in midfield, Howard drew every neutral observer in the crowd to his side,” reported the Washington Post.

Kansas responded with a 25-8 run to pull away. Freshman center Greg Ostertag led the Jayhawks by 16 points off the bench. Senior guard Julius McNeil led Howard, who committed 23 turnovers and shot 4 for 18 from three-point range, with a 12-point loss.

“They played our tails off, but over 40 minutes I thought if we matched their intensity, it would end the way it went,” said Kansas coach Roy Williams. The Jayhawks were upset by No. 9 Texas El Paso in the second round.

“I learned one thing that I’m going to go back and put on the computer,” Beard said after his team fell to 17-14. “I have to go out and recruit bigger athletes to be able to compete at this level.”

After 10-18 and 10-17 over the next two seasons, Beard was hired as coach of the New Jersey Nets in June 1994. Howard has since had seven managers and three successful seasons, including the last two years under Blakeney. Frankie Allen led the Bison to an 18-13 record in 2001-02 but they lost to Hampton in the MEAC title game and wouldn’t make it back until this year.

Aside from their first-round opponents and the way they won their conference tournaments, Holley sees other similarities between Howard’s two recent NCAA tournament teams.

“Also, they’ve been playing nine or ten players all season,” Holley said of Blakeney’s team, which consists of seven players averaging at least 7.1 points. “We didn’t really have that star player who would average 24 points. You never knew who would get promoted and we had players who could get promoted any day, any time. We pushed the issue from a defensive standpoint.”

Holley, who works as an account executive and still lives in the DC area, will not be traveling to Des Moines for Thursday’s game, but he will be following closely along with his former teammates.

“The ’92 team is definitely in their corner,” Holley said. Howard played against Kansas in a previous NCAA tournament appearance in 1992

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