WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Hampton University coach Kevin Nickelberry says his team is better than its record. He thinks the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament is a perfect place to prove it.
Nickelberry's team took its first step toward showing just how good it is on Tuesday, never trailing en route to a 51-32 victory over Delaware State in a first-round contest.
The seventh-seeded Pirates (16-15) employed a stingy zone defense that took advantage of the outside-shooting struggles experienced by the Hornets all season long.
Delaware State (8-24) connected on just 13 of 50 shots and never found any type of rhythm against the Pirates, who will play No. 2 South Carolina State in a quarterfinal at 9:30 tonight in Joel Coliseum.
"Defensively, we felt if we could keep them off the (foul) line, we could win," Nickelberry said. "Guys followed the game plan perfectly."
With the Hornets reluctant to drive to the basket and ineffective shooting from the outside (4-for-24 from behind the 3-point line), there was little need for Nickelberry to make adjustments. Delaware State attempted just three foul shots in the game. Only 18 personal fouls were called, 10 on HU.
"We're not a very good basketball team," Delaware State coach Greg Jackson said. "Give them credit. They forced us to shoot from the outside. Their zone caused us a lot of problems."
The Pirates scored the game's first seven points and rarely were threatened, taking a 21-16 lead into the intermission. A 14-2 run to start the second half effectively iced the game and erased memories of the Feb. 7 meeting between the teams that ended in a 49-39 Delaware State win.
While that game was ugly, Nickelberry said it might help his team during the tournament because teams could underestimate the Pirates.
"We're a better team than people think," Nickelberry said. "Before the game, we talked about five games this year that were decided by (a total of) 12 points. Four of them were on the last play."
There was no last-second drama on Tuesday. Hampton High product Darrion Pellum had 12 points, including eight in a three-minute span that broke the game open early in the second half. Vinny Simpson added 11 points for the Pirates, who have won three straight and four of their past five games. The Hornets never came closer than 15 points during the final 13 minutes of the game.
Simpson said the toughest thing about Tuesday's game was remaining patient against the Delaware State zone. But the Pirates did that effectively in the second half when they pulled away.
Hampton post players Theo Smalling and Michael Freeman combined for 15 rebounds as the Pirates held a commanding 37-23 edge on the boards.
"We needed to come out and prove tonight we can play with anyone (in the conference)," Nickelberry said.
Now, the Pirates focus on S.C. State. The second-seeded Bulldogs won't intimidate Hampton. The teams split their regular-season series, with Hampton claiming a 74-60 victory on Jan. 17 and S.C. State winning 74-71 in overtime in Orangeburg.
"They're a great team, well-coached," Nickelberry said. "But we match up well."
HAMPTON 51, DELAWARE STATE 32DELAWARE STATE (8-24): Welcher 3-9 0-0 6, Bouie 3-12 0-0 9, D.Johnson 1-10 0-0 2, Parkes 0-1 0-0 0, Sandidge 4-9 2-3 11, Wilson 0-1 0-0 0, Douse 0-0 0-0 0, Grady 1-6 0-0 2, Smith 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 13-50 2-3 32.
HAMPTON (16-15): Pellum 4-9 2-2 12, Simpson 5-12 0-0 11, Tunnell 1-3 2-2 4, Smalling 0-2 3-4 3, Freeman 4-7 0-0 8, Brooks 0-0 0-0 0, Tolson 0-0 0-0 0, Morgan 2-5 1-1 5, DeGroat 0-0 0-0 0, Harrison 3-6 2-2 8, Lola-Charles 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-44 10-11 51.
Halftime—HU 21-16. 3-point goals—Delaware State 4-24 (Bouie 3-10, Sandidge 1-3, Grady 0-1, Welcher 0-4, D.Johnson 0-6), HU 3-11 (Pellum 2-4, Simpson 1-5, Morgan 0-2). Fouled out—None. Rebounds—Delaware State 23 (Welcher 5), HU 37 (Smalling 9). Assists—Delaware State 10 (Welcher 3), HU 12 (Tunnell 8). Total fouls—Delaware State 8, HU 10. A—NA.