Bethune-Cookman coach kept MEAC championship under wraps

Talk about your half-time speeches. How about this: You just won the MEAC.

That’s what could have happened with Bethune-Cookman, at the mid-point of an eventual 73-60 victory over North Carolina Central. When Morgan State lost to North Carolina A&T on Monday, Bethune clinched the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s regular-season basketball championship — regardless of the outcome of the game against the Eagles. The Wildcats will take the top seed for in the league tournament, which begins March 8 at Winston-Salem, N.C.

Only, Bethune-Cookman coach Clifford Reed Jr. kept that bit of news to himself. Probably for the best. His team might have lightened up, had it known. After all, Bethune has been held without a title since joining Division I more than 30 seasons ago. The Wildcats kept fighting, and went on to a sixth consecutive win — the program’s longest streak since 1989. Kevin Dukes scored 13 points and Alexander Starling added 11 to finish off North Carolina Central, which had won seven of its previous 11 games.

“We’ve truly been blessed, this program has,” Reed said after the game. “I’m elated for the players who play now and the players who played here 13 years ago when I was an assistant (under former Wildcats coach Horace Broadnax). We’re standing on their shoulders, and they should be proud.”

Morgan State was trying to become the first team in MEAC history to win four straight outright conference regular-season titles. Instead, it’s the Wildcats pursuing their first-ever NCAA Tournament berth — heck, their first-ever postseason tournament of any kind at the Division I level. Whatever happens in the MEAC post-season event, the Wildcats are guaranteed at least a bid in the NIT bid.

“When we came here,” junior guard C.J. Reed said, “we set out to play in the NCAA Tournament and dance in March. That was our goal, not just to win the regular-season title.”

Before then, there remains one more item on the agenda: Thursday’s regular-season finale against Florida A&M. Win this one, and Bethune will have claimed 20 victories in a season for the first time since joining the MEAC in 1980.

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