With bright lights, a rowdy crowd and a historic venue, Madison Square Garden (MSG) offered a premiere showcase for a selection of college basketball stars at the fifth annual Big Apple Classic on Dec. 4.

Opening its doors to Virginia State, Virginia Union, Hampton and Howard universities, the “World’s Most Famous Arena” treated traveling alumni, casual fans and passionate student bodies to an entertaining afternoon. Touted as the only Black college basketball tournament played at MSG, the tourney certainly satisfied fans with the full flavor that Historically Black Colleges and Universities give to higher education. From unison drum lines to gyrating cheerleaders and special guests that included hip-hop legend Doug E. Fresh, the tournament electrified the crowd on a chilly day in New York City.

The Virginia Union Panthers and Virginia State Spartans tipped things off in the early game, adding another chapter to a storied rivalry. Although it remains one of the longest-lived matchups in the history of both schools, the series has been anything but competitive over the last few seasons as the Panthers won its 20th straight game against the Spartans in a 66-46 victory.

Virginia Union turned a six-point halftime lead into a 20-point route, running Virginia State ragged as nerves and poor shooting haunted the Spartans throughout the game. Virginia State shot 31 percent from the field and connected on just 22 percent of their three-point attempts.

Senior guard Braxton Byerson, who led Virginia Union with 26 points, connected on five three-pointers and even toyed with the crowd a little, smiling after each basket. “He’s a shooter,” said Virginia Union coach William Coker. “I told him after the game that I was proud of him. The second half he was great but it’s not what we didn’t expect. We expected him to play like that. We practice everyday and he shoots the ball like that. I felt like if we settle down and play then that would happen.”

Following the game, there was a three-way battle of the bands between Bowie State, Virginia State and Hampton. Bowie sent only its band. In a consolation of sorts, Virginia State captured the crown, filling in admirably where its basketball team fell short.

Basketball and band battles weren’t the only focus of the Big Apple Classic. A focus on improving literacy programs, an essay contest for high school students and a college fair featuring more than a dozen Black universities returned the attention to education for visitors.

The “Battle of the Real HU” also returned for the annual clash, between Howard and Hampton universities, this time a basketball brawl that came down to the finish. The Hampton Pirates edged the Howard Bison, 67-55, but not before they received a scare from the losing team. Howard stayed close for much of the night but Hampton used a 9-3 run in the middle of the second half to break a 41-41 tie. Hampton extended their moniker of the “Real HU” for the seventh straight year and also snuck in a little payback to former coach, and now Howard head coach, Kevin Nickelberry.

“It was bittersweet,” an upbeat Nickelberry said after the game. “Most of those players played for me so I know how talented they are. Coach Joyner has done a great job and they’re a good team.”

Concluding with a ceremonial chorus by both school bands, the tournament ended its fifth annual event on a high note. Providing both education and entertainment, the three- to four-hour trip for D.C. area locals appeared well worth it as enthusiastic fans exited MSG in synchronized stepping to the trumpet sounds and drum snares. Five years strong, the Big Apple Classic has become an annual fixture in New York City, successfully putting Historically Black Colleges and Universities on the grandest of all stages.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO