HAMPTON -- Ed Joyner Jr., doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, not with one game remaining in the regular season and tournament seedings to be decided. But Hampton University’s coach likes what he’s seen in the past five weeks.
Ferocious and active on defense, poised and balanced on offense, the Pirates appear to be peaking at the right time. The latest evidence was Saturday, when HU throttled rival Norfolk State 61-53 in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Convocation Center.
“Ask me Thursday, let’s get to Thursday,” Joyner said, referring to the Pirates’ regular season finale against North Carolina A&T. “I think we’re finding or have found ourselves, and that’s a great thing. When a team has found itself and everybody’s poised and calm, that’s what you want. I can be going off and they’re calm. That’s a great thing.”
The Pirates (17-11, 12-3 MEAC) won their sixth consecutive game – the program’s longest winning streak since the 2010-11 season – and for the ninth time in the past 10 games, dating back to Jan. 25. They swept the season series against Norfolk State and are solo second in the MEAC, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Spartanse and Morgan State, which both have two games remaining.
“I think we came a long way, even from six, seven games ago we came a long way,” HU guard Deron Powers said. “Our focus in practice has been great. We’re playing as a team. Ain’t nobody trying to outshine nobody. We’re playing together.”
Powers, the sophomore from Williamsburg, provided the offensive spark. He scored 16 of his game-high 23 points in the second half as HU twice built double-digit leads and held fast in the final minutes.
“He took advantage of every situation that he could, in the half-court and in transition,” Joyner said. “Over this run, he’s grown the most. He’s still the engine that runs us.
“Last year, we needed him to score more. This year, we need him to be a little more of a point guard. But we also told him: take advantage of your situations. He did that. We told him, when it’s the right time, you’ll know when to take over.”
While Powers delivered on offense, the Pirates’ defense set the table. HU held Norfolk State (16-12, 10-4 MEAC) to its second-lowest point total of the season. Only the ACC's Miami, a 64-49 winner, held the Spartans to fewer points. HU limited Norfolk State to 43-percent shooting, forced a season-high 25 turnovers and came up with 12 steals.
The Pirates’ chief thief was Ke’Ron Brown, who had four steals and limited all-conference wing Pendarvis Williams (8 points) to half his scoring average and just five shots from the field. NSU leading scorer Malcolm Hawkins, still rusty after missing time due to a neck injury, scored 12 points, but had nine turnovers and missed 5 of 7 shots.
“Du’Vaughn Maxwell gets a lot of credit, and he’s due that,” Joyner said, “but the toughness of our team and the heart of our team is built around Ke’Ron Brown. We owe him a lot. The team owes him a lot. He individually takes people out of a ball game. We call him ‘Deion Sanders’ because he can defend half the court. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.”
Norfolk State’s problems were compounded by the absence of RaShid Gaston. Coach Robert Jones said he held out the 6-foot-8 forward because he was late to the team’s pre-game shootaround. His 8.8 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, and bulk inside were missed.
Hampton’s defense and Norfolk State’s sloppiness accounted for a second half run in which the Pirates built a working margin. The Spartans committed 11 turnovers in a span of 18 possessions, the last resulting in a Brown steal and run-out dunk for a 43-33 lead.
Norfolk State (16-12, 10-4 MEAC) climbed within 45-41, but Brian Darden answered with a 3-pointer. The Spartans missed free throws and committed turnovers on three consecutive possessions – their 16 second-half turnovers were more than they average in an entire game.
Powers’ driving layup after the last turnover pushed Hampton’s lead to 52-41. Norfolk State was within 53-47 in the final two minutes and had a chance to get closer, but Anell Alexis’ 3-point attempt was off. HU made enough free throws in the final minute-and-a-half to clinch it.
“We’ve still got to take it one game at a time,” Joyner said, “but if they do, I think this team’s got a chance. We’re happy with where we are, but we understand it’s not over. We’ve got one more to try to get, and we want to go into the tournament as comfortable as we possibly can.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun