With beat to match heart, Hampton a winner for all With singular beat, Hampton offers real rhythm of the game

March 17, 2001|By Mike Preston

BOISE, Idaho - They catch your eye as soon as they enter the gym, not just with their basketball skills, but also because of the marching band and cheerleaders. It's a show inside The Show. Not only has No. 15-seeded Hampton University captured the hearts of fans in Boise, of all places, with their stunning, 58-57 upset of second-seeded Iowa State on Thursday night in the West Regional, the Pirates are the essence of what the NCAA tournament and college athletics should be all about.

It's a tale of David vs. Goliath. It's about team chemistry and a white coach in a historically black conference in which hardly anyone really cares, and shouldn't. It's about buzzer-beaters and upsets, with three of the four higher seeds here being upset by lower seeds, and four games decided by seven points on opening day, an NCAA record.

The biggest upset belonged to Hampton (25-6). And the band plays on. "It was great to come out of the game with a win," said Tarvis Williams, Hampton's 6-9 senior forward who was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's Player of the Year. "I think we kind of shocked the nation. We didn't shock us.

"We celebrated afterward not because we didn't expect to get in, but because of all the hard work," said Williams.

What a party! In one swooping moment, large numbers of the fans fans poured onto the floor at the Boise State University gym to dance, roll around and celebrate with Hampton players; their coach, Steve Merfeld, and cheerleaders. Merfeld ran wildly onto the floor before he was pulled down and hugged by one of his players.

Meanwhile, university president Dr. William R. Harvey, never shy with words or deeds, walked around the arena with both first clinched in the air before giving the No. 1 sign.

And even when the crowd dispersed, the band was still playing 45 minutes after the game.

"Most people never heard of Hampton, where it is and who we are," said Williams. "Now they do. We put Hampton on the map."

Hampton University, with an enrollment of only 5,701, is a pre-dominantly black school with a 204-acre campus in southeastern Virginia, 20 minutes from Norfolk and 15 minutes from Williamsburg. According to Merfeld, Hampton is ranked one of the top 10 academically in the southern region by U.S. News and World Report magazine.

As for basketball, the school's biggest claim to fame was producing NBA bully boy Rick Mahorn. The program stayed around the .500 level through most of the 1990s until Merfeld became head coach for the 1997-98 season. And then Harvey got a few complaints from alumni.

Merfeld, 39, is white.

And Hampton plays in the MEAC with 10 other black schools. And all his players are African-Americans.

We're talking White Shadow, Part II.

"It was a great opportunity to become a head coach at a good institution that was going to be behind me all the way," said Merfeld. "I have not faced any adversity, incidents or comments about me being a white coach at a predominantly black university."

Harvey said: "I've defended coach Merfeld and I shall continue to do so. People who think that a black school should hire only a black coach, that's wrong. I'll hire the best people available, black, white or polka dot. I've battled white racism all my life, and I'll battle black racism all my life."

What Merfeld has done is instill a confidence in his players concerning his system. He has brought in three transfers, including two of his best players, senior point guard Marseilles Brown (from the University of Richmond) and senior guard/forward LaSean Howard (from Syracuse).

But this is a team built around junior guard Tommy Adams and Williams, who could start for just about any Division I team. Williams averaged 22 points and 4.5 blocked shots per game this season, and has a 40-inch vertical leap.

That's serious ups.

When the Pirates needed a game-winning basket, they went inside to Williams, who scored on a turnaround jumper in the lane with six seconds remaining against Iowa State.

That shot was the biggest in Hampton history in a game that should be shown on the ESPN Classic but won't because Duke seems to own the broadcasting rights. The Pirates have now won 14 of their last 15 games and could become the first No. 15 seed to win in the second round against Georgetown today.

"Iowa State had reached a comfort level when they went up by 11 points [with 8:10 remaining]," said Coppin coach Fang Mitchell, whose Eagles came within a shot of advancing to the Sweet 16 in 1997. "But when Hampton got within five points with about four minutes left in the game, I recognized that nervousness in Iowa State's eyes. They knew that little school Hampton wasn't going to go away.

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