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Upstarts have shot as CIAA tourney opens in Charlotte

By Herb White
Correspondent
JCSU_LIVINGSTONE
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Livingstone guard Mark Thomas glides under the basket for a shot over J.C. Smith defender Emilio Parks, left, in a game earlier this year in Charlotte.

There isn’t a clear-cut favorite in this week’s CIAA basketball tournament in Charlotte, and that will open the door for upstarts.

Last year, Bowie State underwhelmed during the regular season but swept the championship against another underdog in Livingstone. When the men’s tournament tips off Tuesday at Time Warner Cable Arena, Bowie State and Livingstone will be among the favorites, having earned first-round byes.

There are plenty of contenders, though, including J.C. Smith, which stumbled to fifth in the South Division but owns a 4-2 record against the league’s top four seeds. The Golden Bulls will play Virginia Union, the North’s sixth seed, at 7:20 p.m. Tuesday.

”I think they’re capable of writing their own story,” J.C. Smith coach Steve Joyner saidof his players. “I think they can go to the tournament and win all four ball games, but they have to be prepared to do so.”

Some story lines to follow this week include:

•  Southern Division dominance: The South has three teams (Livingstone, Winston-Salem State and Fayetteville State) with 10 or more league wins, compared with one team with 10 league wins in the North, Lincoln (Pa.)

•  Livingstone’s time to get over the hump: The Blue Bears (18-7, 11-5) have been runners-up the past two years and are hungry to earn the school’s first tournament championship.

“That loss last year still hurts,” said CIAA Most Valuable Player Mark Thomas, a senior guard who led the league in scoring at 20.1 points per game and was second in assists at 5.0. “We’re trying to get back there. We didn’t expect to have so many losses early, but we’re here now and we’ve got to finish out the season strong.”

Livingstone has the league’s best offense at 86.8 points a game and the top backcourt combination in Thomas and Jody Hill, who averages 18.9 points. The Blue Bears also have the experience of making the Division II tournament for the first time in school history in 2013.

•  Is Winston-Salem State ready to roll? The Rams (16-10, 7-3) were the preseason pick to win the South, but finished second to Livingstone. Winston-Salem has an All-CIAA forward in WyKevin Bazemore, who averages 14.3 points.

•  Bowie State tries for a repeat: The Bulldogs (14-13, 8-8) went 1-5 against the South but earned the North’s top seed. After surprising the field to win the title last season, Bowie State has the experience to make another run.

•  Lincoln tries to break through: The Lions haven’t won a tournament game since returning to the CIAA three years ago, but that could change this week. Lincoln went 18-8 overall and 6-4 in the CIAA North as well as 4-2 against the South.

•  Fayetteville State returns to relevance: The Broncos (18-9, 10-6) finished third in the South with an infusion of youth and experience. They are trying to advance to the final for the first time since 2008 when they lost to J.C. Smith.

“We’ve always been the underdogs since I’ve been here because we’re not the team that you know wins this or wins that,” Fayetteville State senior Tyrrell Tate said. “We’re trying to build a program, and I want to leave a (winning) note on this program.”

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