Virginia Union wins first ever Chris Paul HBCU Tip-Off, striving to make tourney for first time since 2018

College Basketball (NCAAM)

The Virginia Union University men’s basketball team posing with the Chris Paul HBCU Tip-Off trophy on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Photo: Mohegan Sun/Khoi Ton)

RICHMOND, Va — A little over a year ago, the Virginia Union University men’s basketball team had its season cancelled by its conference, the CIAA, because of concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Division II basketball persisted as a postseason tournament was held by the NCAA, but the lack of revenue generated by the small schools that make up the Historically Black Colleges and Universities conference wasn’t enough to keep its season alive.

At VUU, some players had to get jobs to support themselves and their families while others contemplated transferring. They all struggled heavily with the conundrum the pandemic created.

“It was tough, [especially] when I first had the team meeting with the kids,” head coach Jay Butler said. “We did a lot of Zoom calls just to kind of stay together.

Under the leadership of Butler, despite the strenuous thoughts that spiraled in the minds of the players, they all managed to do one thing- stay in the gym.

“We got shut down early last year,”  junior forward Raemaad Wright said. “But during that time, a lot of us weren’t at home, so we were all up here, around the school, and there was a gym that opened up every morning and we just tried to stay in there as much as possible.”

Fast forward to December 2021 and the Panthers are 4-2 and the winners of the first ever Chris Paul HBCU Tip-Off.

The tournament, created by the NBA star that holds the namesake, was established in order to bring recognition to HBCUs.

“It’s about bringing awareness, and also understanding that it’s a new day and age when it comes to athletics and all this stuff,” the Phoenix Suns point guard said in a press conference last month. “No matter what school you go to, if some of the top kids go to these HBCUs, the money will follow. ESPN, all the outlets will follow. Just understanding that is sort of what I’ve been trying to do.”

Along with VUU, the tournament also invited three other HBCUs: Morehouse College, West Virginia State University and Winston-Salem State University. The games were played at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

While staying at the 5-star Mohegan Sun Resort, the team also got to interact with and practice alongside several high Division I teams such as UNC and Villanova, who were there for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, the tournament that preceded the HBCU Tip-Off.

“The atmosphere was big time, it was first class,” Butler said. “To be up there with [the Division I teams] we got a chance to see those coaches and those players walk through the same arena that we played in.”

In the tournament, VUU would beat West Virginia State 75-49 in the semifinals and then beat Winston-Salem State 59-55 in the finals. Along with playing in an arena much bigger than Barco-Stevens Hall, the team’s home court, the tournament’s games were also nationally televised on ESPNU, quite a big jump for a Panther’s team that usually gets around 1,500 spectators.

“That was a great experience,” Wright said. “I’m just glad that CP3 decided to put something together for HBCUs [where] we can broadcast our talents.”

Wright was a big contributor for the Panthers in the tournament games. The Suffolk, Virginia, native secured 13 rebounds and six points in the semifinals and a 14-point, 12-rebound double-double in the finals.

Despite the team’s success in the Chris HBCU Paul Tip-Off, Butler’s squad still has a lot of work to get done if it wants to accomplish its ultimate goal of winning the CIAA and securing a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2017-2018 season.

“Coach Butler has been great,” junior guard Keleaf Tate said. “He just keeps pushing us in practice because we got that one goal and that one goal is to win our conference and make the NCAA tournament.”

The Panther’s next game is tonight against Salem University. The game tips off at 6 p.m. in Salem, West Virginia. The team’s full schedule can be found on their website.

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