For much of the regular season, Winston-Salem State was one of the top men’s basketball teams in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
With a 16-5 record, the Rams were poised to earn a top four seed in the conference tournament with hopes to win the championship for the second time since 2020. But then something uncharacteristic happened: Winston-Salem State stopped playing well.
The Rams lost three straight games from Feb. 9-15, with the final defeat to Johnson C. Smith — one of the worst teams in the conference — serving as a needed wake-up call.
“When we lost those three games straight, my staff and I felt like the team hit rock bottom,” coach Cleo Hill Jr. said.
Ten days later, the Winston-Salem State Rams are CIAA champions.
The fifth-seeded Rams defeated No. 6 Lincoln, 62-57, in the CIAA Tournament final at CFG Bank Arena on Saturday for the program’s 13th title.
“It feels real good to get back to the winning culture,” said senior Jon Hicklin, one of four players who were part of the 2020 Winston-Salem State team that won the CIAA championship.
But did the Rams actually think a week and a half ago — on the heels of their third-straight loss — that this was even possible?
“Nah, probably not,” senior Jaylin Parker admitted.
“When we went on that three-game losing streak, we didn’t part ways or go in individual directions,” senior Xavier Fennell added. “We came together, and that’s all it takes.”
The championship is the program’s second since Hill, the son of Winston-Salem State legend Cleo Hill Sr., took over in 2018-19. The program’s previous titles came in 2012, 2000, 1999, 1977, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1961, 1960, 1957 and 1953.
“Everything kind of aligned just like how it did in ,” said Fennell, who scored seven of his eight points in the final five minutes. “Everybody locked in. Everybody was one. Everybody was on the same page. Everybody had that energy.”
The Rams, who beat No. 12 Saint Augustine’s, No. 4 Claflin and No. 1 Virginia Union to reach the title game, never trailed Saturday despite the game being competitive for much of the second half. Samage Teel and Jaylon Gibson led Winston-Salem State with 14 and 11 points, respectively.
Lincoln (17-15) could barely find the net in the first half. The Lions from Oxford, Pennsylvania, shot 22.2% from the field, with half of their attempts from behind the arc. It took Lincoln 3:45 to score its first point, and then the Lions went scoreless for nearly eight minutes in the middle of the half as Winston-Salem State (21-8) went on a 15-3 run to take a 15-point lead. The Rams from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, led 29-18 at half.
With both teams playing in their fourth game in four days, Hill said it helped to have a fast start to the game.
“It was good, but I knew we weren’t going to blow them out,” Hill said. “I knew it was going to be a game of runs.”
Lincoln came all the way back to open the second half, going on a 10-0 run to tie the game at 34. Reggie Hudson, who led Lincoln with 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting, scored eight straight during the surge.
But Hicklin (11 points) banked in a 3-pointer on the very next possession to put the score back in the Rams’ favor. Lincoln wouldn’t tie the game again.
“We stayed together, and we weathered the storm,” Hicklin said.
Two free throws apiece from Jaylen Alston (eight points) and Teel in the final minute sealed the Rams’ victory. Alston led Winston-Salem State in scoring in the first two tournament games, while Teel made the game-winning jumper in the semifinals Friday.
Lincoln interim coach Jason Armstrong said his team “got killed on the glass,” as the Rams almost had as many offensive boards (16) as the Lions had defensive rebounds (21).
The Rams also shut down Lions star Korey Williams. The All-CIAA guard, who scored his 2,000th point on Wednesday, scored 12 points in the loss but went 1-for-10 from the field.
“They did a helluva job on him, shutting him down, making sure he couldn’t get shots off and putting length on him,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong took exception with the way the game was officiated, calling the free throw discrepancy — 43 attempts for Winston-Salem State to just 17 for Lincoln — a “tragedy.”
“The foul situation, the ticky tack fouls. He has some respect here, and you all know who I’m talking about,” Armstrong said, referencing Hill, who has coached previously won a CIAA title with Shaw in 2011. “He has respect here, and those refs are going to give him those calls because he’s an older guy. I’m new to this conference. Playing against someone who is a veteran coach, he’s going to get those calls. And we just didn’t get those calls tonight, when our guys were going to the basket, getting hit, pushed, everything.”
The championship game appearance was Lincoln’s first since rejoining the CIAA in 2008. The Lions went .500 in the regular season, but their improbable tournament run included wins over No. 11 Johnson C. Smith, No. 3 Virginia State and No. 2 Fayetteville State.
“I’m telling you one thing: We’re going to get it done,” Hudson said. “We changed the narrative of Lincoln basketball. We will get it done.”
No. 5 Winston-Salem State 62, No. 6 Lincoln 57
WS — Teel 14, Hicklin 11, Gibson 11, Alston 8, Fennell 8, Wilkins 4, Springs 3, Shaw 3.
L — Hudson 14, Williams 12, Young 11, Sorber 6, Cleveland 6, Neverdon 3, Garita 3, Roberson 2.
Halftime: 29-18, WS.