By Jeff Nations
Win or lose, Adrian Powell is an important part of history for North Carolina A&T's men's basketball program.
Once a mainstay atop the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) standings, the Aggies had long ago fallen on hard times when Powell arrived after a postgraduate season at Massanutten Military Academy. For three years, dreams of an NCAA tournament appearance were just that -- dreams.
Not anymore, not after the performance Powell and his teammates delivered at this past week's MEAC tournament. The Aggies, who had failed to win more than two straight throughout the season, reeled off four victories to win the tournament and claim the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. It is North Carolina A&T's 10th appearance in college basketball's biggest tournament, but the first since 1995.
"It's been crazy," said Powell in a telephone interview on Monday, the eve of the Aggies' first-round matchup tonight against Liberty in Dayton, Ohio. "It's been like a dream. I never thought we'd be in the NCAA tournament, playing on national television. The feeling is just indescribable."
Powell, a 6-foot-6 forward, did more than anyone to make that dream a reality. During the regular season, he led the Aggies in scoring with 12.5 points per game and also in steals (59), and was second in rebounding (5.1 rpg).
Already this postseason, Powell has had a March to remember. In four MEAC tournament games, he averaged 15.3 points and five rebounds. In Saturday's championship game against Morgan State at The Norfolk Scope Arena, Powell went to the free-throw line with his team up just one point with 23.2 seconds left. Powell calmly knocked down both free throws to push the lead to three. Then on the Bears' ensuing possession, Powell blocked first-team All-MEAC pick DeWayne Jackson's 3-point attempt to tie it in the final seconds.
Powell earned the MEAC tournament's Most Valuable Player honor for his play.
"We just told each other to play with confidence," Powell said. "We just played well and stayed focused. I knew when we won more than two in a row (by beating Delaware State in Friday's semifinals), we were going to win it."
Winning tonight's matchup against a similarly streaking Liberty squad won't be an easy task. Powell and his teammates arrived in Dayton on Monday morning and quickly hit the court for practice. Now the Aggies are focused on the Flames, not looking ahead to a potential second-round matchup in Lexington, Ky., against top seed Louisville.
"We've watched a little bit of film on them," Powell said of Liberty. "They're a pretty good team. They've got good guards and size. Boxing out their big men will be key for us."
Powell isn't the only MMA postgrad alumnus playing in this year's NCAA tournament. Terry Brutus, a 6-6 freshman forward, will be suiting up for Ole Miss in Friday's second-round matchup against No. 5 seed Wisconsin in Kansas City. Brutus, a role player this season who's averaged 1.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per game, helped the 12th-seeded Rebels return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Ole Miss (26-8) won the Southeastern Conference tournament this past weekend to lock up an automatic berth.
Powell credits his season at MMA playing for former Colonels coach Cedrick Broadhurst with making a huge impact on his basketball career.
"Going to Massanutten Military Academy changed my life," Powell said. "I went to a small high school, wasn't being recruited at the Division I level. Coach Broadhurst and coach [Melvin] Abrams made me tougher up there."
MMA, coming off a second straight appearance in the elite National Prep Championship in New Haven, Conn., has blossomed into one of the nation's top postgraduate programs under second-year coach Chad Myers. Success stories like Powell and Brutus can only help future recruiting efforts, said Abrams, MMA's athletic director.
"This program has been around nine or 10 years, and the last few years we've been able to get it to a level that is attractive to kids who need an opportunity," Abrams said. "Part of the thought process in having this program is to be able to do that. To see them on TV and see MMA flash across the bottom of the screen or get mentioned helps."
Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at 540-465-5137 ext. 161 or at email@example.com