RALEIGH, N.C. - They were playing in their first conference tournament championship game against a program that had captured 14 titles and was making its 20th finals appearance.
They were players from a border state looking for respect and recognition in a conference dominated by teams from the South.
But with an unwavering composure that belied their inexperience in such a high-stakes environment, the Bowie State Bulldogs won their first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament championship last night with a 72-71 win against Virginia Union in front of 21,786 at the RBC Center.
"I won a championship in high school, and when I played for Bacone Junior College we were No. 3 in the country and we won three regional championships," said Bulldogs point guard and former Southwestern All-Metro player Cornelius McMurray. "But nothing compares to this collegiate level right here. The Baltimore guys - me, Omarr [Smith], Arthur [Lewis Jr.], Shawn Hampton, we all came here together, and everybody said we couldn't do it.
"But that just makes you stronger."
Bowie State senior forward Tim Washington, who picked up three early fouls, was named tournament MVP after capping a stellar three-day run to the championship with 21 points - 15 of which came in the second half - on 10 of 17 shooting.
"I wanted to play my hardest and just give it all I got," Washington said. "I knew my team was behind me 100 percent. I got into early foul trouble, so I just sat on the bench and told myself, 'Just play even harder.' "
The teams split two regular-season meetings in overtime, and it looked to be heading that way again last night.
With his team down 69-67, McMurray, who had hit a big three-pointer in the final 20 seconds of Bowie State's quarterfinal win against Johnson C. Smith, nailed a trey from the right wing with 1:08 left.
Panthers guard Lugman Jaaber drove the lane to reclaim the lead, 71-70, for Virgina Union with 42.8 seconds to go. But after a timeout, Bulldogs center Jon Smith scored inside, putting his team up for good with 24.8 seconds to go.
The Panthers (17-10) nearly lost possession off a wild pass by Lawrence Booker, then called two timeouts while trying to inbound the ball with 8.3 seconds left. When they finally did get the ball in, Bulldogs guard Stephen Moss-Kelley stripped it from forward Duan Crockett and called timeout with 4.6 seconds left.
"During that timeout, a couple of teammates of mine said, 'Make sure your hands are up,' " Moss-Kelley said. "So I kind of remembered that. The ball got thrown over my head, and I just stuck my hand out there and got a hand on it."
Omarr Smith (City College) was immediately fouled and missed his first free throw, but Crockett's heave at the buzzer from halfcourt was way off the mark, and the Bowie State bench, cheerleaders and pep band swarmed onto the court in celebration.
The championship win capped a remarkable turnaround for the Bowie State program. The Bulldogs finished 7-21 (4-12 in the CIAA) in coach Luke D'Alessio's first year. But over the past three seasons, they have gone from 19-9 (10-6) to 20-8 (12-4) to 26-4 (13-3).
BOWIE STATE - McMurray 3-8 0-0 9, J. Smith 6-6 0-2 12, O. Smith 4-8 0-1 9, Washington 10-17 1-4 21, Moss-Kelley 4-9 2-2 13, Van Norden 0-1 0-0 0, Hampton 1-2 2-4 4, Lewis 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 30-54 5-13 72. VIRGINIA UNION - Jaaber 5-8 0-0 13, Crockett 9-18 4-4 22, Alston 3-6 2-2 8, Woolen 2-3 0-0 4, Wallace 3-9 0-0 6, Booker 2-9 2-3 7, Kidd 0-0 2-2 2, Brown 3-3 3-3 9, Moore 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 27-58 13-14 71. Half - Virginia Union, 41-32. Rebounds - B 30 (J. Smith, O. Smith, Moss-Kelley 4), VU 31 (Crockett 10). Assists - B 19 (McMurray 6), VU 9 (Crockett 5). A - 21,786.