No. 16 Howard loses to No. 1 Kansas in NCAA tournament


DES MOINES — They’d waited three decades to return here, and for one brief, vibrant moment, the Howard Bison threatened to shape the NCAA tournament that would stay forever. They played fearless basketball. Their shots kept falling. Faces on the Kansas bench grew nervous. Deep in the first half, the Georgia Avenue number 16 had the defending champion wondering what hit her.

Playing in front of Vice President Harris, a Howard grad who arrived at Wells Fargo Arena just before halftime, the Bison have only been able to cling to the top-flight Jayhawks for so long. Howard’s first tournament appearance since 1992 ended in a 68-96 loss, a final score that belied the momentary horror Howard inflicted on the Jayhawks in the first half and the previous triumphant season.

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Over the summer, coach Kenny Blakeney gathered his players, many of them newcomers and transfers, and told them they could be something special. They gathered one last time Thursday in a small room down the hall from their dressing room, where Harris walked in and addressed them.

“It’s amazing to know that we have people with so much power connected to us and supporting us at the same time,” said newcomer Shy Odom. “She just told us that although we didn’t get the win, we’re still winners and what we achieved this year is history.”

“For me, the student experience is so important,” Blakeney said. “These are opportunities and memories that they will remember for a lifetime. It’s a day and a season these guys will never forget. They are linked like brothers. It’s a full season of growth that means more to me than what we achieved on the pitch.”

Wearing jerseys with the inscription “The Mecca,” the school’s nickname, Howard capped his historic MEAC championship season with a performance to be proud of. Blakeney didn’t change his aggressive style, using a man-to-man press all over the court after making baskets, begging for quick breaks after Kansas misses, and substituting all five players at once. The Bison picked up the pace, slicing through the back door, launching threes and harassing Kansas ballhandlers.

“They played even faster than we had imagined,” said Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts.

From the start, the bison showed they would not back down. After her first basket, a dunk by senior forward Steve Settle III, Howard’s press forced a scrum and a jump ball. Odom, leading the Bison by 15 points, fought his way to a three-point game. Point guard Elijah Hawkins’ speed challenged the Kansas defenders.

“I think they expected us to back down,” said transfer graduate Jelani Williams. “They didn’t play with much energy in the first half. They were a little sloppy and allowed us to access our stuff. They didn’t make anything really difficult for us, so we had open eyes. If you shoot in March you can stay in any game.”

“They weren’t ready for us,” Hawkins said. “They expected something completely different. The fact that we jumped on them in the first half kind of scared them.”

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Neither team took control early on. When Williams pulled off a steal that led to a breakaway layup for Ose Okojie, the Bison took a 32-31 lead, going 6-10 in the first half, a result that led to double takes across the country. The Bison were still tied after 4:59 at half-time.

“We felt like March,” Williams said. “When we made that run in the first half, it felt like we were winning the game.”

Even playing without Coach Bill Self after his heart surgery, the Jayhawks are good and deep enough to overwhelm almost any opponent. Gradey Dick regained his ball touch, and Jalen Wilson, Ernest Udeh Jr. and KJ Adams Jr. blew alley-oops out of the sky. The Jayhawks ended the first half with a 17-4 win and went into halftime with a 50-37 lead and a large dose of relief.

The Bison used their brief stay at the tournament to spread messages beyond basketball. In support of a cause the team has been campaigning for all season, Williams entered the arena in a t-shirt that read, “There is a health crisis in the US for black mothers. Black women deserve to survive childbirth.”

While the rest of the Bison lined up on the court during the national anthem, Blakeney and Williams sat side by side on the bench, heads bowed. Williams has sat during the anthem since playing at Penn to highlight racial inequality in America.

“It’s something I do year-round, so it wouldn’t be right of me not to take it everywhere,” Williams said. “There are only things I believe in, things that need to change in this country. Part of our responsibility as people with platforms, people in the spotlight, is to continue to carry that message with you. What better place to do that than at one of the top-rated sporting events in the country?”

Blakeney has sat next to Williams all season during the anthem, which Williams said “means everything” and called the support “a testament to him as a man”. When Blakeney was recruiting Williams, he read a story from the Philadelphia Inquirer detailing the backlash Williams and Penn’s teammates received for sitting during the anthem. During an exhibition game that fall, Blakeney looked down on the bench and saw Williams sitting alone.

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“That story immediately came to mind,” Blakeney said. “I never wanted him to feel alone, so I sat with him all year.”

Blakeney was asked about Hawkins’ gaudy three-point percentage at a news conference on Wednesday. “Our point guard this semester was a 3.75-year-old student, and he was interning on Capitol Hill and was part of the Jan. 6 hearings,” Blakeney replied. “We’re proud of that, too.”

As Blakeney left the seat, he waved both hands at the Howard section. Taking Howard to the tournament is a coaching achievement that is attracting interest from other schools. Georgetown, another elite academic school in Blakeney’s hometown, needs a basketball coach. Blakeney said Georgetown did not approach him about his vacancy. When asked if he would be interested in the position, he hesitated.

“I’m Howard’s coach and we’re just finishing our season,” Blakeney said. “The only thing I look forward to is Mexican food and margaritas. That’s the closest thing to my plate.”

From before the tip through the second half, the Bison fans intermittently chanted “HU!” The band members sat back and replied, “You know!” The Bison didn’t last long on their tournament return, but they had let everyone know that they there were.

“You saw early on the love and joy we play with each other,” Williams said. “That was a special year. We did a lot of historic things this year. This is a credit to this group, these special personalities, these special people. Our spirit as a group was something special. That’s the best way to describe it.” No. 16 Howard loses to No. 1 Kansas in NCAA tournament

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