Bowie State not up for down year

College basketball: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs, but they've waved off the predictions.

January 28, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

BOWIE - The Bowie State men's basketball team continues to conduct business as usual - the business of winning games.

This was earmarked as a rebuilding season for a team that smashed the school record with 30 victories in 2002-03, captured the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and South Atlantic Region titles and advanced all the way to the NCAA Division II final four before being halted by established power Kentucky Wesleyan.

After all, that magical run had been fueled by virtually an all-senior cast led by All-American Tim Washington that was long gone. The top six scorers - Washington, Jon Smith, Stephen Moss-Kelley and Baltimoreans Omarr Smith, Cornelius McMurray and Arthur Lewis - no longer donned the black and gold.

Yet, reconstruction was not in the plans of coach Luke D'Alessio, who has transformed a perennial losing program into a CIAA titan during his five years at the school. His mind was set on reloading and getting right back into the thick of the league championship race.

The Bulldogs have certainly succeeded. With an exciting, 87-82 win over archrival Virginia Union last week, Bowie took control of the CIAA East. A subsequent rout of Columbia Union earned the Bulldogs the No. 2 ranking in the region behind Francis Marion of Florence, S.C.

Bowie suffered an unexpected setback last night, dropping an 80-74 decision on the road to Elizabeth City State, leaving its overall record at a still-impressive 16-3.

The first clue that Bowie might, indeed, be special again surfaced during a grueling eight-day trip along Tobacco Road. The Bulldogs swept games at North Carolina Central, Fayetteville State, Shaw (an 88-87 nail-biter) and Johnson C. Smith.

"Nobody expected us to do too much. We were supposed to have lost too much," D'Alessio said. "And certainly nobody thought we could win four in a row on the road like that when you're traveling every other day and practicing the same day. We've gone 0-4 and 1-3 on that trip in the past. That was the proving ground."

The only obvious building blocks from last season were Shawn Hampton (St. Frances), who was the seventh man and backup to Washington and Jon Smith in the post positions, and Allen Van Norden, the eighth man and a good shooter who averaged three points a game.

D'Alessio also had Nate Fields (Southern-Baltimore) returning, but it didn't seem like enough of a nucleus for a champion.

But the coach was hardly sacrificing the future. Already on campus was another Baltimore product, the well-traveled Anton Jenifer (Walbrook), who led the city in scoring as a high school player and later had stints at Baltimore City Community College and CCBC-Catonsville.

Jenifer had enrolled at the latter school to play for D'Alessio, who subsequently took the job at Bowie before they ever worked together.

"I regretted not coaching him then," D'Alessio said. "When he came here, we had three pieces of the puzzle together - the point guard [Jenifer], shooting guard and big center."

It will be Jenifer's only season with Bowie, so he is bent on making the most of it.

"I love this system," said Jenifer, who leads the team with a 21.1-point scoring average and is shooting 42 percent from three-point range. "Luke knows I'm very determined, so he lets me dictate a lot of things that happen on the floor."

From his years of successful coaching at CCBC-Catonsville, D'Alessio gained an affinity for Baltimore-bred players because of their savvy and devotion to the game, and he has gained their trust.

He has another key local figure in Ray Akinola (Dunbar), a 6-foot-4 leaper who has taken over Moss-Kelley's wing spot.

"Like most Baltimore players, he's got a lot of toughness and is terrific defensively," D'Alessio said. "He's probably the most athletic wing guard I've ever had and a great competitor."

Early in the season, another player with Baltimore ties, 6-8 Nile Patrick, who formerly played at Morgan State, was the second starter in the post. Then, Lee Cook, a sturdily built, 6-9 player from Omaha, Neb., recovered from a meniscus tear in his knee. Bowie went 8-2 before Cook joined the team and had won eight straight since he returned before last night's loss.

"He has made a difference," D'Alessio said. "He was our missing piece, the player to replace Tim Washington."

Cook transferred from Alcorn State in Mississippi and Bakary Konate, a rangy 6-8 junior, came from Cincinnati State Technical College to supply even more depth up front.

Bowie has needed all the backup help it can get because of a raft of injuries and illnesses. Patrick had strep throat. Hampton suffered a nasty gash on his head and a mild concussion in the team's recent game against Columbia Union after playing exceptionally well of late.

"The success is just good recruiting by the coach," Hampton said. "It's the same formula as last year, putting the right pieces together. And then that road trip made us come together. We all had the same goal, and that's to win."

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