Even amid the inconsistency and difficulties of Hampton University's basketball season, Brian Darden believed that he played for a championship-level team.
The former Phoebus High standout saw the talent in the gym and sensed the desire throughout the locker room to accomplish great things.
But with five transfers on the roster, himself included, and two newcomers this season, he also thought it would take time. The Pirates proved him right, in the nick of time.
"I did see a big turnaround," Darden said, "because we had been through so much through the year, and we prepared so hard and so much, every day, day to day. So I saw a turnaround coming. I was glad that we were able to do it."
The Pirates (16-17) put together their best week of the season, winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament as the No. 6 seed, and earned the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 2011.
"Those four days I saw us grow up and be the kind of team we all thought we could be," Hampton U. coach Ed Joyner Jr. said. "Guys made passes like they knew where their teammates were going to be. Our defensive intensity and attention to detail were outstanding. I saw a belief and a will that they could get it done."
Hampton's reward is a No. 16 seed and first-round game versus Manhattan on Tuesday (6:40 p.m.) in Dayton, Ohio, with the winner getting unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Kentucky two days later in Louisville.
"We're happy that we get to be a part of it," Joyner said. "It's not the play-in round any more. It's the first round of the NCAA tournament and we're happy to be there, regardless of who we play."
Hampton overcame the absence of leading scorer and rebounder Dwight Meikle, who suffered a high left ankle sprain in the tournament's first-round win versus Morgan State last Monday. Meikle said Sunday night that he was moving around much better than the previous couple of days and said that he might be able to give it a go Tuesday.
The Pirates must overcome a Manhattan team with balance and experience. The Jaspers (19-13) finished tied for third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but defeated regular-season champ Iona in the tournament championship game. Iona swept them in the regular season.
Forward Emmy Andujar, a 6-6 senior, is the leading scorer and rebounder (16.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), and leads the team in assists (110) and steals (65). Six-ten junior Ashton Pankey, a transfer from Maryland, averages 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Shane Richards, a 6-5 junior, averages 13.1 points per game and has 88 3-pointers.
The Jaspers were third in the MAAC in offensive efficiency, according to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy, and second in effective field-goal percentage, which combines 2- and 3-point shooting, at 50.2 percent. They were fourth in the conference in defensive efficiency.
Manhattan also is well rested, having won its tournament title March 9. Hampton had just two days rest after Saturday's MEAC title, winning three games in three days and four games in six days.
"I think we're pretty much prepared for it," Darden said. "We were prepared for the week that we just came through, playing four games in (six) days. Honestly, I think we're prepared for it. We have great trainers and managers that take care of us, so I think we'll be prepared."
Hampton and Manhattan have one common opponent. The Jaspers defeated Morgan State 73-69 on Dec. 20. HU beat the Bears three times.
The Pirates rode the scoring and floor play of guards Deron Powers, Reggie Johnson and Darden to the MEAC title. Powers, named the tournament's outstanding player, is finally healthy after dealing with ankle and Achilles' heel problems for much of the season.
Johnson, the transfer from Miami of Ohio, didn't become eligible until after first semester. He averaged 16.5 points per game during the tournament. Quinton Chievous, the transfer from Tennessee, carried the Pirates to the semifinal win against second-seeded Norfolk State with a career game — 23 points and 16 rebounds.
Big men Jervon Pressley, Charles Wilson-Fisher and Emmanuel Okoroba, as well as defensive stopper Ke'Ron Brown, contributed points, rebounds and energy.
"I've seen us do some unbelievable things within the last week," Powers said, "so I think that anything is possible if we put our minds to it. I definitely have confidence."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.