There's never a good time for a three-game losing streak, but Hampton University's men's basketball team picked an especially bad one.
The Pirates' skid, which began Feb. 14 and was snapped by Saturday's win at Delaware State, dropped HU from first place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference into a tie for second and canceled any thoughts of the Pirates' first regular-season championship since 2001-02 and a top seed for the MEAC tournament.
Morgan State (15-12, 10-5) at Coppin State (15-3, 10-5), and go into the conference tournament with its morale high.
"It wasn't that we lost confidence," Hampton coach Ed Joyner said. "We just hit a rough point. (Losing) can start to mess with you a little bit, but I don't think it broke them.
"The good part about it is that it wasn't the tournament. At the end of the day, you've got to keep your eyes on the prize, and that's the prize."
It's a prize the Pirates haven't possessed since 2005-06, when a team that finished fifth in the regular season embarked on a surprise run to the MEAC title and accompanying NCAA berth. That was two years before senior guard Brandon Tunnell got to Hampton, and he doesn't want to leave without knowing what that feels like.
"Pressure is definitely the right word," said Tunnell, the only four-year senior on an HU roster that also includes senior forward and junior college transfer Charles Funches. "I feel the pressure and I know Chuck does, because we definitely want to go out on top. We feel like we deserve it, because we've worked so hard."
This group of players is already the first to win 20 games since the 2001-02 season, which also ended with a MEAC tournament championship and an NCAA tournament appearance.
Tunnell is proud of that prosperity, but also wary of it.
"I think success kind of was our problem," he said. "I think the focus wasn't there. Losing those three games was a blessing in disguise. (We) started taking teams lightly. Our defense slacked up. We thought we can outscore everybody, which isn't the case."
It's easy to see how the Pirates may have fallen into that trap. Junior guard Darrion Pellum averages 17.6 points per game while junior guard Kwame Morgan averages 16.2, and Hampton outscores opponents by a league-best 3.8 points per game.
The Pirates average just 66 points as a team, though, eighth in the 11-team conference, leading to questions about whether the 314 shots Pellum and Morgan have taken between them have left enough chances for their teammates.
"When things go wrong, people want to point the finger at them, but we won 20 games with them taking those shots," Tunnell said. "We wouldn't be the same team without those two guys. … They do press after bad games, so we want them to be as confident as possible, if they decided to shoot it from the free-throw line or halfcourt."
Tunnell has stepped up his offensive game at times, while junior guards Mike Tuitt and Christopher Tolson have each had big games when needed.
"We are a team full of kids who think they can score the basketball, but they have not been a jealous bunch," Joyner said. "… It's good to have four or five people who are confident in what they do. At certain points in the season, they come through for you."
Joyner and Tunnell hope the Pirates can come through in the postseason. The top five regular-season finishers skip March 8's first-round games in Winston-Salem, N.C. Hampton will either open MEAC tournament play as the second seed on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. or as the third seed on March 10 at 6 p.m.
Tunnell wants a tournament title in his last go-round, not just for himself, but for the teammates who've come before him — guys like Vinny Simpson and Mike Freeman, seniors last year, and like Theo Smalling, shot to death last October before what would have been his senior season.
"That would be great, not just for me, but Vinny and Mike Freeman and especially Theo," Tunnell said. "I'll be able to say I have something those guys never had."