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SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) -
Game one in the CIAA tournament is in the books and it was not problem for the locals as Livingstone rolled over St Augustine's 95-70.
With a record of 21-5, it's been a banner year for the Blue Bears, exciting students and alumni from all over the country who have come to Salisbury and Charlotte to cheer on Livingstone in the tournament.
"We've had good basketball teams in the past, but we've never had a super team," said Judge Calvin Hawkins from Indiana. "This is a super team."
Livingstone captured its first CIAA southern division title Saturday night in a thrilling 60-55 win over Winston-Salem State University. The victory marks the first time Livingstone has won 20 games in a single season.
On the Monroe Street campus, the most noticeable sign of the team's success is probably the bookstore. Manager Jerome Funderburk told WBTV that fans had been buying up Blue Bears merchandise, and that a special promotion with Coca Cola to give away a free tee shirt with a soft drink purchase had resulted in all of the shirts being given away.
"Everybody is excited about the team and wishing them success," Funderburk told WBTV.
That excitement isn't limited to the campus, however. On Friday Mayor Paul Woodson added his wishes for success.
"We're all very proud of Livingstone, Coach Stinson, and all the players," Woodson told WBTV. "We wish them the best in the tournament and continued success."
Yet though there's a state of euphoria over the team's success, players and fans alike say true satisfaction will come if Livingstone is the team cutting down the nets after Saturday night's championship game and if the Blue Bears get to compete in the NCAA Division II tournament.
"There's some satisfaction in winning the Southern Division and making history; however, the team's goal all season long has been to make it to the NCAA Division II playoffs," said head coach James Stinson, who was named CIAA Coach of the Year on Monday. "If we win the CIAA Tournament, that's an automatic berth to compete nationally."
The Blue Bears finished the regular season 20-5 overall and 12-4 in Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play. They were led by junior guard Mark Thomas, who was recently named to the CIAA all-conference team, Omar Ford-Bey, Tyler Johnson and Ethan Anderson.
"Omar Ford-Bey, Tyler Johnson and Ethan Anderson really set the standard for the team this year by painting a picture of what they wanted to do and goals they wanted to achieve," Stinson said. "They've taken the same mentality I have, which is one step at a time. Mark leads by example, and his GPA proves that, but Tyler and Omar really started this last spring by trying to get the guys ready. When new recruits came in they spoke with them individually and asked what their goals were. They've been a big part of what we've done so far."
At times during Saturday's contest, the noise inside Trent Gym was deafening.
And after the final buzzer sounded, many fans rushed the court to celebrate with players and coaches.
Stinson said he appreciates the support he gets from women's basketball coach Angelyne Brown and assistant coach Shannon Turner, as well as the support he receives from athletic director Andre Springs and football coach Daryl Williams, who ensure football players wear their jerseys and sit together at home games.
Stinson appreciates the large crowds.
"The ‘sixth man' effect has really helped us in the past few games at home," Stinson said. "We weren't the best team at home starting off and even lost back-to-back games in January. We've received strong fan support this season from alumni, students, faculty and staff, and it has really helped."
Patricia Foard, Beverly Love, Dr. Da'Tarvia Parrish and Dr. Leslie Stokes and his wife are staunch Blue Bear supporters.
"You hate to single people out, but Dr. Parrish is at every home game and many away games," Stinson said. "She's supportive of the guys, not just as players but also academically. And Dr. Faleese Moore-Jenkins is a big supporter of our guys. It's great to be able to look back and see her in the stands clapping. She's always enthused when the guys are playing and has really lent her support to us this year."
Bobby Connor, a 1971 Livingstone graduate, is another steadfast Blue Bear supporter. The retired Philip Morris USA employee hasn't missed a home game in two years.
"I'm from the Salisbury-Rowan County area and grew up knowing about Livingstone," Connor said. "And of course being an alumnus, I'm for Livingstone. This is one of the best men's teams we've had, and I just hope other alumni will come out and support the Blue Bears this week at the CIAA Tournament."
Connor, of Kannapolis, was happy to see a packed Trent Gym for the Winston-Salem game.
"We truly brought out the sixth man Saturday night," he said. "I saw some people there that I haven't seen at the games. The support is really, really growing. We're going into the CIAA on a high note, and if they continue playing at the level they played on Saturday I think they'll go far."
Livingstone College president Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr. hopes Connor's prediction is spot on.
"This has been a banner season for our team so far, and I attribute that to how hard the guys practice and the way they hustle during games," Jenkins said. "I'm also proud of the way they work hard in the classroom, which is most important, and I can't say enough about Coach Stinson and the remarkable job he's done this year."
Livingstone College Public Information Officer Laurie Willis contributed to this article.