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HU believes a title possible

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The last time Hampton played Delaware State, the Pirates managed all of 39 points in a 49-39 home loss Feb. 7.

Hampton will get a chance to improve on that 25 percent-shooting performance at 6:30 p.m. today, when the seventh-seeded Pirates take on the No. 10 Hornets in the first round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"We're a different team today than we were when we played them the last time," HU coach Kevin Nickelberry said. "I think our experience will allow us to do things we need to do."

The Pirates (15-15, 8-8 MEAC) go into the tournament having won back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 18. In a 59-58 win against North Carolina A&T on March 3, junior Mike Freeman and freshman Darrion Pellum each scored 14 points, and in a 54-48 season finale victory at Howard on March 5, Freeman had a season-high 20 points.

Freeman, a forward, and junior guard Vinny Simpson, HU's leading scorer with 11.4 points per game, have rotated from the starting lineup to the bench this season as Nickelberry tried to find the chemistry and effort he wanted by turning to younger players. Freshmen guards Christopher Tolson, Kwame Morgan and Pellum, a former Hampton High player who transferred after being ruled academically ineligible at Virginia Tech, all have seen substantial minutes, but Nickelberry plans to call upon his veterans at tournament time.

"This is the time of year where upperclassmen understand what they need to do," Nickelberry said. "Obviously it's going to be very important that Freeman and Simpson and those type of guys step up. ... I think they're ready."

That said, Nickelberry hopes the experience his younger players gained has made the Pirates a deeper postseason team.

"Every decision I've made has been to try to get them ready to play late," Nickelberry said. "... We want to go into the championship with the right mindset, understanding that this is an opportunity. We can play with anybody in this league if we play Hampton basketball. If we get away from that, we can also lose to anybody. We have to understand that our margin of error is not that large."

Morgan State (20-11, 13-3), which Hampton swept in the regular season, is the tournament's top seed, while South Carolina State (16-13, 10-6) is seeded second. If Hampton gets past Delaware State (8-23, 6-10), it will face S.C. State in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

The tournament winner will earn the MEAC's only NCAA bid.

"It starts with defense with us," Nickelberry said. "... I think we believe we can go in there and win four games. I really do. But we've got to go out on the court and we've got to do it. We believe, but there's probably 10 other teams that believe they can win, too. A lot of the leagues have shown this year that parity is here to stay in college basketball, and anything can happen."

Today's game WHO: No. 7 Hampton (15-15, 8-8 MEAC) vs. No. 10 Delaware State (8-23, 6-10).WHEN: 6:30.WHERE: Joel Coliseum, Winston-Salem, N.C.
MEAC tournament at a glance At Joel Coliseum, Winston-Salem, N.C.First round • Game 1: No. 10 Delaware State (8-23) vs. No. 7 Hampton (15-15), 6:30 p.m. today.• Game 2: No. 8 Florida A&M (9-20) vs. No. 9 Howard (8-22), 9 p.m. today.• Game 3: No. 11 Md. ES (7-22) vs. No. 6 Bethune-Cookman (16-15), 3 p.m. Wednesday.Quarterfinals • Game 4: No. 1 Morgan State (20-11) vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. Wednesday.• Game 5: No. 2 S.C. State (16-13) vs. Game 1 winner, 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.• Game 6: No. 3 Norfolk State (11-17) vs. Game 3 winner, 6 p.m. Thursday.• Game 7: No. 5 Coppin State (12-18) vs. No. 4 N.C. A&T, 8:30 p.m. Thursday.Friday's semifinals • Game 7 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 6.• Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 8:30.Saturday's championship Semifinal winners, 7, ESPNU.
On Page 4 Full MEAC tournament schedule and team capsules

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