CIAA Basketball: Livingstone another Hoosiers story?
By Laurie Willis
SALISBURY — In “Hoosiers,” arguably one of the 10 best sports movies ever made, there’s a poignant scene in which Hickory High School’s basketball team enters the arena where they’re going to compete for a state title. It’s mammoth, and immediately the players look shell shocked.
So their coach, portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Gene Hackman, astutely whips out a tape measure to show them though the gym is enormous, its dimensions around the basket are exactly the same as theirs back home.
Livingstone College’s men’s basketball team has made it to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in school history and plays at 8:30 p.m. Saturday against the 22-8 Fairmont State University Fighting Falcons. But when the Blue Bears take the court today at 3 p.m. for practice inside the gym at West Liberty University (W. Va.), don’t expect coach James Stinson to borrow a page from Hackman’s book.
Sure the NCAA DII playoffs will be by far the biggest stage on which the Blue Bears have played, but Stinson and his assistant coaches have worked all week on keeping the players grounded.
“Our players are anxious and excited at the same time,” said Stinson, who captured CIAA Coach of the Year honors. “We haven’t played since March 2, so it will have been two weeks since we played when we tip off Saturday night. None of our players competed for a state title in high school, so Saturday’s playoff game will be the biggest game of their lives. But we’ve told them to just remember the mental attitude, hard work and solid play that got them where they are. If they do that, I think we’ll be all right.”
The Blue Bears finished the regular season 20-5 and won the CIAA Southern Division for the first time in school history. Their impressive season featured many firsts, including sweeping rival Winston-Salem State and defeating archrival Johnson C. Smith on its home turf.
Of course losing the CIAA championship game was disappointing, especially given the Blue Bears made it to the finals and lost just two years ago. Today, Livingstone’s players and coaches are focused on one thing and one thing only: their game against Fairmont State.
“We understand you don’t make it to the NCAA D-II playoffs without being a talented team that knows how to string together wins,” said senior guard Omar Ford-Bey. “So we’re definitely not taking Fairmont lightly even though we have a slightly better overall record than them.
“We can’t worry about what happened two weeks ago at the CIAA Tournament and all of the ‘what if’s and should have been’s,’ ” Ford-Bey continued. “The fact of the matter is Livingstone College is one of three teams from the CIAA to be chosen to compete for the DII national championship, and from the tipoff Saturday night forward our charge is to do our absolute best to represent Livingstone College and CIAA fans everywhere to the best of our ability.”
The Blue Bears have already made their alumni proud, not to mention the students, faculty and staff. A “fan bus” is expected to leave from campus early Saturday, filled with people who are anxious to lend the team support.
If Livingstone defeats Fairmont State, they play again Sunday. If they winthat one, they play again on Tuesday.
Of course, Stinson knows better than to get ahead of the game and is taking things one contest at a time — just as he did throughout the season. And unlike his players he has been here before — as coach of the Barber-Scotia Sabres. Stinson led Barber-Scotia to the Elite Eight of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) playoffs in 2003 and 2004 and knows what it’s like to play in high-profile games.
“I’m very grateful for the way our season has progressed thus far,” Stinson said. “Our players have come together, worked hard as a team and made a lot of folks proud. People want to bestow tons of credit upon me, especially since I was named CIAA Coach of the Year, but as I’m quick to tell them and especially our players, to God be the glory.”
With a head coach who practices humility and instills that in his players, there’s no telling how far up the ladder the Blue Bears will claw during the post-season.