- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Overshadowed for years in its own crowded area code, North Carolina Central is ready for its debut on college basketball’s biggest stage.

In just their third season as a full Division I member, the Eagles have joined Triangle neighbors Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State in the NCAA tournament.

Coach LeVelle Moton says that “hopefully it means that we belong.”

No. 14 seed N.C. Central (28-5) brings a 20-game winning streak into its NCAA opener Friday night against third-seeded Iowa State in San Antonio in the second round of the East Regional.

Senior point guard Emanuel Chapman calls it “surreal to be mentioned in the same breath” as those programs because, “We get lost in the shuffle playing in the same area of these great schools.”

These Eagles, who received full Division I membership in the summer of 2011, have done their part to stand out - most notably by knocking off one of their neighbors.

Central’s 10-point overtime win over N.C. State in November certainly got the locals’ attention, but even that didn’t fully make believers out of the Eagles.

According to Chapman, what did it for the Eagles was a 63-60 loss to Florida A&M; on Jan. 11.

“We kind of let it slip through our fingers,” Chapman said. “We realized that we were a good team … but we had to be on our Ps and Qs every night. That’s the game that made us our best this year.”

With a roster of players who started their college careers elsewhere, Central hasn’t been beaten since.

Now they want to join Coppin State, Hampton and Norfolk State as MEAC schools to pull significant upsets in the NCAA tournament - though each of those schools did it as No. 15 seeds.

Ten of their players are transfers - either from junior colleges or other Division I schools - including forward Jay Copeland (Ball State) and guard Reggie Groves (Canisius).

“We can’t do the status quo,” Moton said. “We can’t do what Duke does. … We have to have a creative method of ascending our program.”

Central’s few four-year players have been key - especially MEAC player of the year Jeremy Ingram, a Charlotte native who scored 20 points 18 times with four 30-point performances, including 37 against Wichita State.

Chapman averages 6.3 assists, which ranks eighth nationally. He works out in the offseason with fellow Raleigh natives John Wall of the Washington Wizards, Dez Wells of Maryland and Rodney Purvis of Connecticut, and says “there isn’t a lot that separates us.

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