DAYTON, Ohio — His shirt tail was out, as he paced through a now-empty Hampton locker room. His tie was loosened, his voice a little hoarse from all the happy use.
Most of Edward Joyner Jr.’s players had left for the team bus to take them through the night to Louisville, where Kentucky — all-powerful, all-conquering Kentucky — would be the opponent Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“This school is getting ready to get publicity like you’ve never seen,’’ Joyner was telling someone over his cell phone Tuesday night. Then he hung up, but was willing to take more questions. The Hamptons of the world don’t get many chances like this.
So, just what underdog story of inspiration did Joyner plan on telling his players in the next 48 hours, to get them ready to play the mighty Wildcats?
“This is David against Goliath, and his cousin, and his two brothers, and his father,’’ he said. “So I don’t know if I have a story to tell them.
“When you’re playing the No. 1 seed, you’re playing an undefeated team and you turn on SportsCenter and everything’s about them, it’s an unreal feeling. Just like we worked hard to get here, they worked hard to be 34-0. Now we’re the ones that’s got to go out there and try to play them.’’
Kentucky vs. Hampton. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue as an even match, does it?
Kentucky is 34-0 and has trailed barely 10 percent of the minutes it has played all season. Hampton is 17-17, and not that long ago was looking at a six-game losing streak.
Kentucky has won 118 NCAA tournament games in its history. Hampton has won two. The first was as a No. 15 seed against No. 2 seed Iowa State in 2001, the second was Tuesday’s 74-64 victory against Manhattan in the First Four.
Kentucky has nine McDonald’s All-Americans ready for their game Thursday night in Louisville. Hampton’s leading scorer and rebounder, Dwight Meikle, was in a boot with a bad ankle Tuesday night. Its best player against Manhattan, Quinton Chievous with his 15 points and 13 rebounds, missed the last minutes and had to be helped off the floor by two teammates after spraining his ankle. Twice.
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Imagine if neither can play Thursday. And you wonder why Joyner has been joking that before playing the Wildcats, he would “probably have Jesus or somebody on speed dial.’’
Matter of fact, he dialed up his cellphone during his postgame news conference. Anyone capable of divine intervention on the other end? “I guess,’’ Joyner said, “he’ll get back to me.’’
Really, what else is there for the Pirates to do now but laugh, enjoy the moment, and take their best shot? While the basketball nation ponders the big question as this tournament begins — would you take Kentucky or the other 67 teams, if the mortgage money was on the line? — they’re the first designated victim.
Kentucky is every sane person’s favorite for the championship. One website put Hampton’s chances for the title at a billion-to-one.
“I’ll take a billion-to-one shot,” Joyner has said, “rather than no shot at all.
“Whatever happens, happens. We’re going to play as hard as we can, and the chips are going to fall where they may.”
The Pirates lost by 18 at Syracuse and Illinois this season, so they have been up against some big guys and not been absolutely trampled. And maybe history can be offered as hope. Dayton has been Cape Canaveral for great Cinderella stories. Villanova’s run blasted off from here in 1985. George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011.
Of course, none of them had to face this Kentucky team. In Louisville.
So what are you thinking right now, if you play for Hampton as the hugest underdog on the planet?
“We love that. We take that head on,” Brian Darden said. “That’s our image.”
Over to Chievous. “Just going in with a great mindset. Not being intimidated.”
And now Reginald Johnson, who contributed 15 points and five assists Tuesday night.
“I’ve watched Kentucky. They’re a great team, as good as advertised. But I have also watched every game they almost were beaten. A team will get them down to the three or four-minute mark and somehow let them out. We’ve got to come out and find a way to play strong and if we have adversity, don’t fold because it’s Kentucky. A lot of teams fall victim to that. They fold because it’s Kentucky.”
Finally to post Emmanuel Okoroba, now eyeball-to-eyeball with Kentucky’s towers.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, and that’s what we’re trying to show the world. A lot of people in here have a lot of pride. We’ll dig down and try to play the best defense we can. That’s all we’re about.”
Odds say it won’t end well for Hampton. But in the end, does it matter? To share the stage with Kentucky is to have a moment in front of the big audience. And the Pirates all know it.
“Look at the opportunity we have,” Johnson said. “Might as well be against the best, right?”
Might as well.
“This is my senior year. I always said I wanted to go out with a bang,” Okoroba said. “I just thank God that finally I get to go out with that bang. Everybody’s going to get to see me play.”
That’s the attitude Joyner is looking for.
“Like I told the guys,” he said, “if you want a chance to do great things, you’ve got to put yourself in situations you can do them.”
The bus was outside, and it was time to go. Somewhere down the road, Kentucky was waiting.