As Doug E. Fresh performed a mini-tribute concert in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, the Winston-Salem State Rams were cutting down the nets at the CFG Bank Arena and celebrating the program’s 13th CIAA Tournament title after defeating the Lincoln Lions, 62-57.

Players, cheerleaders and the school’s fans who drove up from North Carolina, danced, shimmied and celebrated the program’s second title in three years while the rapper performed in a designated area off the court and repeatedly exclaimed, “Let me clear my throat!” and performed his signature dance moves to one of house music’s anthems, “It’s Time 4 Da Perculator.”

As the man known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” in the hip-hop community performed, and the pulsating beats jumping out of the overhead speakers had folks out of their seats, it seemed a fitting way to celebrate the championship games in Baltimore. The annual tournament is a soulful celebration of something much bigger than just athletic excellence — it’s an observance and honoring of the HBCU educational and cultural milieu that has flavored and elevated the larger American society as a whole for over a hundred years. It was a theme that was carried throughout the week and punctuated by Saturday’s championship games.

Sophomore guard Samage Teel, who hit the game-winning pull-up jumper with 11 seconds left in the Rams’ 45-44 semifinal win over Virginia Union to catapult them into the finals, led the way in the first half by scoring eight of his team-high 14 points. Jaylon Gibson, a 6-foot-10 junior forward/center, took over in the second half by scoring nine of his 11 total points.

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Lincoln looked lethargic and sluggish in the opening half, connecting on only six of their 27 shot attempts. They trailed 29-18 heading into the locker room, but the lead actually felt much bigger than that. They opened the final half with an inspired full-court press and proceeded to go on a 14-5 run, cutting the deficit down to two points with 11:41 to play. Nearly a minute later, the score was tied. But the Rams responded by ripping off a 17-5 run of their own.

The Lions fought valiantly, led by sophomore guard Reggie Hudson’s 14 points, but the Rams proved too strong down the stretch.

Despite being a founding member of the CIAA in 1912 and competing in the first official conference tournament in 1946, the Lincoln men’s basketball program had never taken part in the tourney championship until now.

“We’re building a foundation of what Lincoln basketball is going to be,” said Lions interim head coach Jason A. Armstrong. “We fought back to tie it up but couldn’t get over the hump, and the better team won today. We’re going to get bigger, we’re going to get stronger, and I promise that this is just the beginning. We’re going to get back here.”

Along a downtown Baltimore stretch known as “the Charmtastic Mile” on Pratt Street, signs advertising the 2023 CIAA Tournament touted the slogan, “Creating New Legacies.” The slogan seemed appropriate when examining the journey of Winston-Salem State’s head coach, Cleo Hill Jr.

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His father, Cleo Hill Sr., was a legendary player for the Rams in the late 1950s and early ‘60s and is the school’s second all-time leading scorer, trailing only the inimitable Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. Playing for Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines , he amassed a staggering 2,488 points while in college and was among the first five players from an historically black college to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Head coach Cleo Hill Jr. of the Winston-Salem State Rams directs his team against the Duke Blue Devils during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Oct. 30, 2021, in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) (Lance King/Getty Images)

Hill Jr. has been successful everywhere he’s been along his coaching journey, winning a CIAA Tournament title with Shaw University in 2011 and prior to that, guiding Cheney University to two appearances in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

But as the son of a college basketball Hall of Famer who himself was mentored by his dad’s legendary college coach, bringing the CIAA Championship trophy back to Winston-Salem carries much more weight than any of his other considerable accomplishments.

“Our motto this year was ‘Protect the legacy,’” said Hill Jr. “There’s a long list of guys from Earl Monroe, my dad and others, along with this being the 55th anniversary of the national championship team, those things taken together and those legacies were something that we wanted to protect. With Coach Gaines being my mentor, it’s humbling to literally sit in the same seat that he sat in. My dad walked this campus, where he met my mother, and it’s a lot to digest. I’m glad the success that we’re having as a staff is here at Winston-Salem State.”

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Alejandro Danois is a sports reporter specializing in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic. 

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