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CIAA Basketball Tournament

It’s not a cliché: Any team is capable of winning the CIAA men’s and women’s tournaments

No tournaments last year, so Winston-Salem State is still the defending men’s champ after winning in 2020

Ahead of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) tournament in Baltimore at Royal Farms Arena this week, the sentiment among head coaches is the same: “There are no secrets” and “any team can win on any given day.”

In their first year back after the 2020-21 tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, players and coaches say the field for the CIAA championship has opened up.

“The greatest thing about this conference is the amount of parity that exists from top to bottom. It’s set in such a manner that you could literally lose to the team that may be in the bottom of the division, if you don’t come out, play your hardest, and don’t come out and execute,” said Lincoln (Pennsylvania) women’s basketball head coach Janice Washington. “This is a conference where you have to bring it on a day-in and day-out basis, because if not, you will get beat. Everybody is fighting for positioning for the CIAA championship.”

For 700-plus days, Winston-Salem State was the reigning men’s champion, and Rams head coach Cleo Hill Jr. joked that their two-year reign should count as back-to-back titles. But he has embraced the target that comes with being the reigning CIAA champion.

“We got a chance to see everybody. I know all the coaches want to win. We’ve seen everybody now. The only school we have not beaten would be Virginia Union this year, but everybody else, we know they’re coming,” Hill said. “We knew that from the start of the season. We recruited and conditioned just for that fact that we would have a target. So we want to embrace the challenge [and] we want to defend our championship.”

Despite clinching the Southern Division title, the Rams (18-6 overall, 12-4 CIAA) earned the No. 3 seed behind Fayetteville State (18-8, 13-3 CIAA), which claimed the overall No. 1 seed in the men’s bracket, and North Division champ and No. 2 seed Virginia Union (21-6, 13-3 CIAA).

Hill has a long history in the CIAA, coaching at Shaw University from 2008 to 2015 and Winston-Salem State since 2018. He’s been named CIAA Coach of the Year twice and won CIAA championships in 2011 and 2020. Hill competes against experienced coaches, many of whom have also won a CIAA title.

“When I look at all of the teams and more importantly look at the coaches, I think if you take out, I think [two teams], each one of these coaches has won a CIAA championship,” Hill said. “Everybody else has tasted the championship champagne of winning the conference tournament. So you’re dealing with experienced coaches who know how to prepare. So I think that’s why you have it, so close amongst all the teams of both divisions.”

One of the biggest threats to Winston-Salem State’s title defense is the Virginia Union Panthers, who have beaten the Rams once in conference play and had another win earlier in the season at the Chris Paul HBCU Tip-Off. Panthers head coach Jay Butler instills the defensive tradition of Virginia Union, which produced Basketball Hall of Famer Ben Wallace.

“Early on, we [were] defending at a high level, and we kind of tapered off where we were just pretty good defensively. I think now we’re back to getting to that top 5 defense naturally,” Butler said. “The kids understand that in the games that we dropped on the road, we [weren’t] as strong defensively, and that’s our No. 1 priority, is to play great defense. When you don’t play great defense, you don’t have an opportunity to win ball games. Defense wins championships.”

Butler, who played from 1992 to 1996 and won three CIAA titles for his alma mater, relays his experience at the tournament to his players hoping to inspire and encourage them. Panthers guard Jordan Peebles is the only current player who was on Virginia Union’s 2018 CIAA championship team. He has helped Butler motivate the squad.

“I try to put myself in the equation. I tell them that at Virginia Union, I was able to win three CIAA championships and was one possession away from winning four out of my four years,” Butler said. “[Jordan] didn’t play a lot, but he was a part of that experience. He knows how great it is to play Saturday night and how great of a feeling it is to be CIAA champ. Something that you will want to remember for the rest of your life. So we’ve been talking constantly about just seizing the moment and embracing the opportunity, taking it one game at a time. Continuing the legacy of winning at Virginia Union.”

In her first year leading Lincoln, Washington finished the season with a 12-4 conference record, enough to earn the women’s Northern Division title and the top overall seed. Elizabeth City State is the No. 2 seed, and Bowie State the No. 3 seed.

The Lions are led by CIAA Women’s Player of the Year Bryanna Brown. The graduate guard leads the conference in scoring with 16.9 points. The Lions have never won the CIAA tournament, but Washington has high hopes for her squad and is quick to add the word “yet” before you can even finish the sentence about the program not having a CIAA title. The Lions managed to finish the season on a three-game winning streak.

“It’s a carrot there for them. It’s a lot easier to get the buy-in when they see how close they are to the end [and] what their mission is,” Washington said. “Getting them to buy into the systems and everything that the coaches are asking them to do gets a little easier.”

With the CIAA title very attainable for the Lions, Washington urges her team to carry the momentum from the season and their high execution level into the CIAA tournament.

“The one thing that coaches preach is the regular-season records all go out of the window at that point, because it’s not, it’s not about what you did in the regular season anymore,” Washington said.

“It’s about who can put the best three days of basketball games together. That’s all that is going to be about once it gets to the conference tournament. Nobody’s gonna care if you were regular-season champs [or] divisional champs. They’re gonna care about who put the best three days of basketball together during the last week of February.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."