Heading into their Dec. 4 matchup with longtime rival Hampton University, the Howard Bison basketball team had lost six straight games. But featured in New York City’s fifth annual Big Apple Classic, Howard pushed their losing skid aside and gave the favored Hampton Pirates 40 minutes worth of hard-fought basketball.

Tired legs and a short-handed roster typically haunt teams late in games, and those troubles came back to stalk Howard in the second half of their 67-55 loss in front of a lively crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Annually billed as “the Battle of the Real HU,” Howard packed up its cheerleaders, band and basketball team and traveled north for a showdown with their biggest adversary. With the surrounding pageantry in full effect, Howard shrugged off some early jitters to close the first half trailing 34-27.

“Walking through the hallways you see all the pictures of the past games played and it’s a big stadium– but once the game started you focus in on the game,” said Howard’s sophomore forward Mike Phillips.

Powered by Phillips and sophomore guard Anton Dickerson, Howard (1-7) stayed close to the explosive Hampton team throughout the night, hovering around a three-point deficit for much of the second half.

But Howard’s depleted roster allowed Hampton (7-1) to go on a 15-5 run late in the game, stretching a 50-49 advantage to 65-54 with 59 seconds remaining. After playing six games over a 16-day span, Howard’s tired legs were no match for the fresher Hampton squad.

“We’re down to seven scholarship players,” said Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry. “We had three starters play 38 minutes. They played 11-12 guys. They’re a deep team and they kept coming at us and the better team won tonight.”

Howard’s bench failed to help its starters, generating zero points in 25 minutes of bench play. “One stat that keeps jumping out to me is this is the fourth game in a row that we haven’t scored from the bench,” Nickelberry said. “ 17-0, it’s hard to win games when you can’t get anything from the bench.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for Nickelberry, who coached at Hampton from 2006 to 2009. Despite Hampton’s seventh straight win over Howard, Nickelberry still believes the rivalry is alive and well and is looking forward to March 3, Howard’s next date with Hampton.

“I’ve been on both sides of it’s great for sports, I love it,” Nickelberry said. “It always brings a lot of emotion and emotions are good for sports, especially for young players. It creates competition.”

Game Notes: Senior forward Charles Funches led Hampton with 20 points. Guards Darrion Pellum and Kwame Morgan II scored 14 points apiece.


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO