Resplendent in a bright blue Elizabeth City State letterman’s jacket and baseball cap, Lee Stephenson left no doubt who he was rooting for in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association women’s basketball tournament final between the No. 2 seed Vikings and top-seeded Lincoln on Saturday afternoon at Royal Farms Arena.
For Stephenson, who served in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War and has been to every CIAA tournament since 1973, his attendance Saturday was mandatory.
“This is my school,” said the 1980 graduate, who traveled from Midlothian, Virginia, on Friday and was one of the first people to walk through the Royal Farms Arena doors when they opened one hour before the game’s 1 p.m. tip-off. “I would never miss this.”
That seemed to be the sentiment of the more than 13,000 combined fans who watched the women’s and men’s championship games Saturday. The Lions defeated Elizabeth City State, 67-52, to improve to 22-7 and capture their first women’s crown, while No. 1 seed Fayetteville State beat No. 2 seed Virginia Union, 65-62, to improve to 21-8 and collect its second men’s title and end a seven-game losing skid in championship games.
Both Fayetteville State and Lincoln earned automatic berths in the NCAA Division II tournaments.
Their victories capped the tournament’s five-day run in Baltimore — its first appearance here since 1952. The conference of 12 men’s and women’s basketball programs from mostly Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) had moved north from Charlotte, North Carolina, where the tournament had been for 15 years.
League commissioner Jacqie McWilliams described herself as “extremely satisfied” with how the tournaments unfolded in the city.
“When I see the smiles and people just having a good time and the energy, that’s when I know success is happening,” she said. “The numbers will fall in place. I’m not concerned about that. But I’m concerned about the hearts of our CIAA family, and our hearts feel good.”
Halftime of the women’s championship was punctuated by the appearance of musical artist Ginuwine, who serenaded the crowd with two of his most popular hits, “In Those Jeans” and “Pony.” R&B/soul duo Kindred the Family Soul performed “Far Away” during halftime of the men’s final.
Lincoln senior forward Shantel Cheeks, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Rock Creek Christian Academy in Upper Marlboro, said helping the team capture its first championship less than 45 minutes north of her hometown was meaningful.
“It’s a blessing because all of my family wasn’t able to be at the last tournament two years ago,” said Cheeks, who scored nine points. “Having them in the crowd, seeing my sister, running out there and giving her a hug, it’s a blessing.”
Fayetteville State senior center Darian Dixon, who hails from Bowie and graduated from Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, was grateful he got to play in front of his mother, father and grandparents.
“Playing in Maryland, it’s always good,” said Dixon, who compiled 14 points and three rebounds. “Winning a championship is even better.”
Visit Baltimore President and Executive Director Al Hutchinson said the tournaments “exceeded everyone’s expectations” despite the looming specter of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re in COVID, right? But we’ve had a good crowd here for every game,” he said. “The competition’s been intense, there’s been tremendous buzz in the arena all week. And then outside of the building, there are people everywhere walking up and down the streets and in our restaurants. Uber folks and Lyft drivers are making a lot of money. So it’s going to be a huge economic, positive story for Baltimore.”
While the action inside the arena was hot, things outside were considerably cooler, and it wasn’t limited to the weather. Donald Kelly, a principal owner of Pratt Street Ale House, said so few people from the tournament dined or drank at the restaurant that he had to let chefs go home at 4 p.m.
“It’s disappointing and frustrating,” he said. “We were hoping for a lot more from this tournament than what we have seen. I hope other businesses got something from it because we all need it, but a restaurant right outside the front doors of the arena did not see much of a trickle-down effect from this basketball tournament.”
Hutchinson appealed for patience, noting that people might still have been wary about attending the tournaments during the pandemic and that this is the tournament’s first year in the city.
“We’re always about improving,” he said. “So if we can do something to help get more traffic to that establishment next year, we want to have that kind of conversation. It’s important for all of the small businesses to get an economic bump from this tournament, and there are going to be lessons learned from this tournament. So we’re not going to be perfect in the first year, but we want to improve on that.”
Beyond the games, the tournaments were an opportunity for educators and counselors to introduce young people to the cherished traditions of HBCUs.
Theodore Jones, a human service specialist with the Charles Houston Recreation Center in Alexandria, Virginia, brought six high school students ranging from freshmen to juniors to give them a sense of the opportunities they could take advantage of beyond high school graduation.
“It gives them a desire to attend college, especially HBCUs,” he said. “This is their first chance to see what the atmosphere is like. They may want to learn more about a Virginia State or a Virginia Union or a Bowie State by coming to this tournament. And these kids are excited because they didn’t know what to expect.”
Khalil Coates, a 17-year-old junior at Alexandria City High School, said he had never been to a college basketball game before Saturday.
“For me, I want to get an actual feel of the HBCUs,” he said. “I want to be around all of these intelligent Black people. I want to be in the atmosphere and enjoy myself.”
Stephenson’s hopes of going home happy were dashed when Elizabeth City State was denied its first CIAA championship. But he pointed out that the Vikings return the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in junior forward Sireann Pitts and the Coach of the Year in Tynesha Lewis, who transformed a program that had gone 12-18 overall and 7-9 in the league in 2019-20 to 21-7 and 11-5.
“We have a great coach and team,” he said. “I wouldn’t be disappointed.”