Morehead State giddy over NCAA tournament bid
MOREHEAD, Ky. (AP) - Brian Hutchinson walked to the front of the makeshift stage in Morehead State's cramped student union, looked out at the mix of students, faculty and fans and let out a small sigh.
"I don't see anybody with a Kentucky shirt on today,'' Hutchinson, the school's athletic director, said with a laugh as the crowd - most of them dressed in Morehead's blue-and-gold - roared.
Getting kids on the quiet eastern Kentucky campus to leave their Wildcats gear in their dorms is no small feat for a school that's spent years playing in the considerable shadow of Big Blue.
Who knew all it would take to give the program a makeover was a little dose of March Madness?
The Eagles (19-15) earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 25 years with a 67-65 double-overtime win over Austin Peay in the Ohio Valley Conference finals last week.
The victory - capped by a jumper from the corner by freshman Steve Peterson with 1.6 seconds remaining in the second overtime - has created the kind of buzz normally reserved for the Wildcats or the opening of a diner in a town not known for its gourmet restaurants.
Coach Donnie Tyndall, who turned around a wobbly 4-23 program in three short years, has been inundated with dozens of calls from national media outlets. Charismatic center Kenneth Faried, with his easy smile and seemingly endless string of double-doubles, has become the de facto mayor.
The basketball team did in 40 minutes what the school's marketing program has been trying to do for the last 40 years: make Morehead relevant beyond this tight-knit community on the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The school's telemarketing program had its best Sunday in 10 years the day after Peterson hit the shot of his young life.
The campus has found an unlikely spokesman in Faried, a still-growing 6-foot-8 center from Newark, N.J., who decided to take a chance on Tyndall over schools like Rutgers and Seton Hall.
Those programs wanted Faried to spend a year at a prep school to get his academics in order. Tyndall told him to keep plugging away at his ACTs so he could qualify and play right away, even if it meant trading the bright lights of New York for a town where street lights are hard to find.
"My mother told me, 'Go somewhere where you can play and make a name for yourself,''' Faried said. "I'm the type of person, I like to bring the little school in the back. I knew Morehead was a nobody for the last 25 years and I saw what coach Tyndall was doing and I thought 'Hey, let's go be a part of something.'''
Just exactly what, Faried wasn't sure. Then again, he wasn't the only one who asked Tyndall "where?'' the first time he called.
Senior captain Leon Buchanan still has to correct his friends sometimes when they mistake Morehead for Morehouse College, a historically black university in Atlanta.
"You have to say Morehead State in Kentucky,'' Tyndall said. "We're hoping we can get to the point where we don't have to mention the Kentucky part.''
Morehead's identity crisis isn't limited to people who can't find it on a map.
While notable alumni include former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, the majority of the student body grew up rooting for Kentucky. Outside of its rivalry with nearby Eastern Kentucky, sports at Morehead have long been a diversion, something to do on fall afternoons or cold winter nights.
Playing second fiddle on your own campus can take some getting used to. The Eagles thought if they started winning things would change.
While there has been a slow rise in attendance as Morehead has made steady progress - going from 12-18 to 15-15 to 19-15 in Tyndall's three seasons - winning the locals over remains very much a work in progress.
An hour after beating EKU in the OVC quarterfinals last week - arguably the biggest win on campus in two decades - Faried went over to a friend's house to relax.
One problem. While the Eagles were winning, Kentucky was losing to Georgia. Faried spent the night trying to calm his friend down.
"These people, they're really obsessed,'' Faried said. "... I want that passion here.''
If Tyndall gets his way, it'll come soon enough. The excitable 38-year-old, a former guard for the Eagles in the early 1990s, has brought continuity to a program that's had little of it over the years.
It's not that Morehead has been awful the last 25 years, just awfully inconsistent. The Eagles have more single-digit win seasons (nine) than winning seasons (seven) since their last NCAA appearance.
To turn things around, rather than build around stars, Tyndall's plan is to improve the team's depth. His approach was tested earlier in the year when junior guard Maze Stallworth was suspended after being arrested on fraud charges.
The team was just beginning to emerge from an early season funk when Stallworth got in trouble. Yet rather than worry about losing his third-leading scorer, Tyndall urged his players to keep their eyes forward.
Stallworth eventually came back to the team after pleading guilty to a lesser charge. His absence allowed Tyndall to give young players like Peterson valuable experience.
That's why Tyndall didn't panic while drawing up the game-winning play against Austin Peay. Faried was the first option, but guard Brandon Shingles didn't hesitate to dump it to Peterson in the corner when Faried was covered. One pump fake, one dribble and one clutch shot later, the Eagles were dancing.
"It's like a dream come true,'' Peterson said.
One the Eagles hope they don't have to wait another 25 years to experience again.
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