HAMPTON ——David Six has often said he can envision a time when a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference women's team — namely his Hampton Lady Pirates — can be certain of having made the NCAA tournament field before conference tournament play, with the promise of an automatic bid to its champion, even begins.
As to whether this is the year to test that theory …
The Lady Pirates garnered a 13th seed for last year's NCAA trip — the highest ever earned by a MEAC program — and lived up to it, taking fourth-seeded Kentucky to overtime before falling 66-62.
"The name on the jersey doesn't matter, and we're anxious to get back to the NCAA tournament so we can win a game and make history," said HU senior point guard Jericka Jenkins, who leads the nation with 7.4 assists per game.
The Lady Pirates haven't won an NCAA tournament game in five appearances, and to guarantee themselves another shot, they'll have to once again cut down the nets at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday.
That's no foregone conclusion, with two other league teams boasting 20-win seasons (No. 2 seed Howard, 22-7, and No. 3 seed Florida A&M, 21-7) and everyone gunning for the two-time defending champions.
"We already know the situation," Jenkins said. "We already know that we're going to get everyone's best shot."
The situation for the Hampton men (10-20, 6-10 MEAC), who open tournament play Tuesday, is slightly different. The preseason pick to finish second in the league after winning their first conference tournament title since 2006 last season, the Pirates instead struggled to an eighth-place finish, unable to recover after Kwame Morgan, their second-leading scorer in 2010-11, was lost for the season with a broken leg.
HU comes into the tournament on a two-game losing streak after a disheartening 60-45 loss to N.C. Central to close the regular season.
"One way or another, we're going to bring it together," said senior guard Darrion Pellum, one of three senior Pirate starters and the MEAC's leading scorer with 18.1 points per game. "I came in with these guys and I'm leaving with these guys. I know these guys are always going to have some fight in them, so one thing I'm not doing is doubt them."
The Pirates play No. 9 seed Morgan State (9-19, 6-10) in an 11 a.m. first-round game.
The two teams were picked to finish 1-2 in the preseason conference poll, but HU's season went off the rails when Morgan fractured the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a summer pickup game with his teammates.
The Pirates have struggled all season to find consistent scoring help for Pellum as well as their touch as a team. HU is shooting a tick less than 40 percent for the season and made a season-low 13 field goals in Thursday's final regular-season game.
"There's always time, til it's over," Pirates coach Ed Joyner said. "We've been out of whack all year. We kind of got in sync a little bit, and then we got back out. It's up to them to respond."