The HCC men’s basketball team knew that it would have its hands full with second-seeded Monroe Community College in their NJCAA Division II national tournament opener March 20.

The Tribunes from New York were making their fourth appearance in the national tournament in the last seven seasons. For the Dragons, however, it was the first trip to nationals in 20 years.

HCC led by two points at halftime and was ahead by the same margin midway through the second half before MCC rallied late for a 62-56 victory in Danville, Illinois.

“No one gave us a chance against Monroe but we showed that we belong, and I think we gained a lot of respect based on how we played,” said Dolapo Olugbile (Reservoir). “You learn that you are playing for more than just yourself. You're playing for many more people than you think - your school, your state and your family.”

The Dragons held the Tribunes (30-3) to their lowest scoring output of the season with a gritty defensive effort.

“We were very proud of our guys,” head coach Mike Smelkinson said. “They did everything we asked them to do. … We stressed to sprint back on defense, communicate and play together. We did that, and that put us in position to win the game.”

Alie Kondeh finished with a team-high 12 points and 10 rebounds to pace HCC (16-13). Brandon Spain added 10 points and Kayode Ajenifuja grabbed 10 boards.

The Dragons outworked Monroe on the boards, claiming a 49-39 advantage while limiting them to just 31 percent shooting from the field.

HCC led 44-42 with just over seven minutes left in regulation before the Tribunes went on a 7-0 run to claim a lead it would not lose. They pushed their advantage out to 57-48 with 4 minutes, 23 seconds remaining.

“Our zone worked really well, we got steals and stops with our zones,” Kondeh said. “We played like a team. We shared the ball and in the first half we were making our shots. In the second half we made the extra pass, we just couldn't knock down our shots.”

Smelkinson believes that his team proved something to not only themselves, but to the rest of the field.

“Our guys showed they can compete on a national level,” Smelkinson said. “Last year our goal was to get to Regions, we did. This year our goal was to get to Nationals, and we did. Next year our goal will be to win Nationals.”

The ride isn’t over just yet. The Dragons move into the Consolation bracket and will face Grand Rapids today at 1 p.m.

“People are starting to know who we are,” said James Peters (Oakland Mills), who knocked down a pair of 3-pointers. “No one expected us to be here. They are going to see Howard pop up at Nationals even more now.”

NJCAA Division II National Tournament

Monroe CC 62, Howard CC 56

Monroe          27            35           --            62

Howard          29            27           --            56

MCC (30-3): Fripp 15, Gary 14, Desir 12, Zimmerman 8, McNair 3, Williams 3, Velez-Rivera 3, Berry 2, Josiah 2.

HCC (16-13) : Kondeh 12, Spain 10, Johnson 6, Peters 6, Bartnik 5, Ajenifuja 4, Vester 4, Oligbile 4, Thompson 3, Harris 2.