Archdeacon: The Battle of Wilberforce returns as intense as ever

WILBERFORCE – Absence makes the heart grow fonder?


In this case just more fervent.

Central State and Wilberforce renewed their give-no-quarter basketball rivalry — “The Battle of Wilberforce” — Tuesday night for the first time in four years.

The two Historically Black College & Universities, located just a couple of hundred yards apart, their campuses separated by a narrow ribbon of asphalt, Ohio 42, in rural Greene County, last played each other on January 21, 2019.

COVID and scheduling concerns — CSU is an NCAA Division-II program, Wilberforce is an NAIA D-II school — were part of the reason for the hiatus.

Only a couple of the players and cheerleaders — fifth-year seniors — had taken part in what is the most storied, most intense college basketball rivalry in Miami Valley right now.

Yet, everyone knew what to do when the women’s teams for the two schools opened the twinbill at CSU’s Beacom/Lewis Gym Tuesday and were followed by the men..

The gym was sold out with CSU students sitting on one side, including in six rows right along the court, just a couple of feet away from the competing players. On the other side of the gym, Bulldogs fans were mostly relegated to the balcony.

Throughout the game the two sides traded chants and sometimes insults.

The cheerleaders danced and tumbled and postured — sometimes face to face, sometimes with laser focus on each other from opposite ends of the court — like they were the Sharks and Jets facing off in West Side Story.

And when it let loose its percussion and brass, the CSU band — “The Invincible Marching Marauders” — turned the old gym into a high-decibel Thunderdome.

Against all that, the players tried to rise to the moment and on this night one especially did.

Cali Davis, Wilberforce’s slightly-built freshman guard with the black beard and tied braids, was targeted by the CSU crowd, which tried to engage him from the moment he touched the ball.

It took him just 37 seconds to sink his first three-point attempt, a shot he punctuated by turning to the crowd and answering them back. The next time down the court, and the time after that, too, he hit threes, each time verbally sparring with the CSU cheerleaders and anybody else who spoke up.

But by then the score was 11-3.

In less than two minutes he had silenced the crowd and the band and by the time the game was over, he had helped partially empty the CSU stands as WU students chanted “Why Y’all Leavin’?” to the early departees.

Davis scored a game-high 24 points, teammate Kori Davis added 16 rebounds and Wilberforce stunned CSU, 91-65.

It is only the sixth time the Wilberforce men have beaten CSU and this was especially surprising since the Bulldogs came into the game with a 3-22 record.

But as CSU women’s player — senior guard Laurene Tere — put it after her team topped the Wilberforce women, 71-66:

“Records don’t matter when we play each other. They could come in with zero wins and it still would be a battle. People rise up in this game.”

A few years ago former CSU women’s coach Sheba Harris, an All American player for the Marauders before that, summed it up:

“This is always (Wilberforce’s) championship game. Records don’t matter. In this game, their worst shooter can be their best and the best become superstars. This is the game where everyone gives everything they got.”

Wilberforce’s women have beaten Central State just once over the years, a 99-95 shocker on Gaston Lewis Court at the WU Multiplex in 2014.

When that game ended, the Wilberforce players and their coach then — Iesha Gray, the former Wright State player — gathered at center court and began to dance.

It was a joyous display, part of what sets this rivalry apart.

As for Tuesday night’s game, Wilberforce men’s coach Mark Mitchell, the former Cincinnati Taft High and Ohio State coach and father of Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell, said his team had been looking forward it:

“We’ve been thinking about this game for two or three weeks now. We just wanted to be prepared for the energy here, but still embrace it.”

‘My favorite game of the year’

Wilberforce cheerleader Aliyah Williams, a junior from Columbus, said when it was time for her to choose a college she wanted to go to an HBCU that was close to home and “I wanted to go to the first private HBCU.”

She wanted a place tied to history and she got it with Wilberforce.

Established in 1856, it was the first college owned and operated by African Americans. And the small community around it was an important stop on the Undergroud Railroad with at last seven safe haven homes in the area that were part of it.

Some 31 years after the school opened, the Ohio General Assembly formed a two-year program at the school to train teachers and promote vocational education.

Those were the seeds that grew into Central State. It became its own four-year school in 1947 and gained university status in 1965, the same year the Marauders won their first NAIA basketball crown. They won another three years later.

Over the years, there have been financial struggles at both schools and in the 1980s WU shut down its athletic program for seven years.

The rivalry didn’t get renewed until 1999 and though there have been a few unfortunate incidents since — a brawl at the women game back in 2014 and postgame fights in the WU parking lot in 2018 — Tuesday’s affair was cleanly played except for a final-seconds incident when a CSU player, guarded zealously by WU freshman Jayden Bennett of Middletown, threw an elbow that broke the Bulldog freshman’s nose.

No foul was called and the game ended seconds later.

Moments like that are not what this game is about. Instead it’s the handshakes players from both teams shared afterward.

These are the indelible moments that earlier in the night prompted Hall of Fame coach Theresa Check, who took a record 13 CSU women’s teams to the national NAIA Tournament, to say:

“This is my favorite game of the year.”

For me, this game comes with memories of the night the CSU cheerleaders didn’t show up at the Wilberforce gym, so eight Marauders fans came out of the stands onto the court and performed routines in their place.

There’s also the image of the late Mildred Henderson, who was tied to both schools and would bring a shopping bag to the games that had a change of clothes.

I remember one year, when she was 86, she wore Wilberforce colors for the first half, then slipped into the restroom and switched to Marauder maroon and gold for the second half.

And there’s the memory of Gray, having her players each choose a player from CSU and write her an inspirational note or biblical verse on an index card. Some 30 minutes before the game a Bulldog player would set the stack of cards on the CSU bench so players could read them later.

“We figured they were dealing with the same ups and downs in life as we were,” Gray said. “We wanted to tell them we understood and we appreciated them for that.”

‘I’m glad this game is back’

Although she’s a veteran of more than 30 years of college coaching — and before that scored 2,128 points in a Hall of Fame career at West Virginia University — this was the first Battle of Wilberforce for Cathy Parson, who was hired at the school in 2020.

“This is a game with a rich, rich tradition, one where neighborhood schools come together in fellowship,” she said, then smiled. “And that fellowship is ‘We’re coming to fight, to compete!’”

The CSU women did that in a big way thanks to 6-foot forward Kailyn Nash, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds and has the skills, Parson said, to one day play professionally.

While she rose to the moment, Nash admitted she was taken aback when she first saw the crowd: “I wasn’t expecting it to be so packed. But they really pumped us up.”

Her counterpart on the other side was Wilberforce guard Kadai Greene-Tucker, who, even playing with long, white nails affixed with decorative rhinestones, scored 24 points.

And she didn’t break a nail, she noted.

“The crowd, the energy, this was a really good moment tonight,” she said “I’m glad I got to experience it.”

Mitchell, the Bulldogs’ men’s coach, agreed. He said this was the total contradiction to the negative “dynamic, the narrative” that too often gets trumped up about young African Americans:

“Here you saw these two schools — schools that have produced an unbelievable amount of role models — playing a game that once again demonstrated we can be positive and helpful and do the right thing.

“This shows we can empower and love each other and build this rivalry into something special. That’s important, not just for the alumni, but for the young people taking part now.

“I’m glad this game is back.”

Maybe absence does make the heart fonder.

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