Howard women's basketball head coach Ty Grace Credit: David Sierra/Howard Athletics

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After her team lost in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament final last year, Howard women’s basketball head coach Ty Grace told her players to remember the feeling of watching the confetti fall for another team. She didn’t want them to wallow in the loss, but Grace emphasized that winning championships should be the expectation at Howard.

“It was always, ‘This is what we’re trying to be. We’re trying to get back to the point so that we can make the result different,'” she says. “We always had one focus: to get back to the championship game.”

On March 12, the confetti finally fell for Howard, as the No. 1 seeded Bison beat No. 2 Norfolk State, 61-44, to win the MEAC title and earn a berth to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament for the first time since 2001. Howard (20-9, 11-3 MEAC) will play University of the Incarnate Word at 7 p.m. tonight in one of the four “First Four” play-in games. The winner will meet South Carolina, the top overall seed in this year’s tournament field.

A rush of emotions overcame Grace and the Howard players in the aftermath of the MEAC championship game. In the broadcast, Grace can be seen pumping her fist and sprinting up and down the sidelines as Howard players and cheerleaders hugged and shouted in joy on the center of the court. “This is what college sports is all about,” commentator Kelly Gramlich said as the camera panned to players with tears in their eyes.

“I just was out of my mind. I was so elated. I almost ran my assistant coach over,” Grace says. “It was just emotions of, ‘We did it. Like we finally did it after last year’s loss.’ It was just redemption. It felt good, and so I expressed that outwardly, and I’d do it again the same way.”

Grace joined Howard in 2015 after two successful seasons at Division II University of New Haven, her alma mater. She arrived in D.C. with the knowledge that Howard had not been to the NCAA tournament since 2001, and made making the Big Dance a goal.

“That was definitely in my plan,” she says. “I wanted to turn Howard into a place where we could try to compete for championships; they had been to three [MEAC] championship games maybe three or four years before I had gotten here. So I knew it was a place that could certainly happen. And I just wanted to try to revive that and make it happen again.”

The banners hanging up in the rafters at Burr Gymnasium, Howard’s home arena, served as a daily reminder of the program’s absence from the NCAA tournament.

“You look and up and [see], ‘2001,’” Grace says. “So we knew that. The players knew that. Anybody that comes in there knows that.”

This season the coaching staff stressed what it required to be champions. “Championship” and “champions” became buzzwords on the team. During practice, Grace would ask: Was that a championship defense? Was that a championship offense? Was that a championship rebound? Film sessions included a segment where players looked at “championship plays.”

“Everything we do has to be related to championship culture,” Grace says. “Taking the charge, diving on the flood, giving your teammate a great pass, they visually saw that on film of what a championship play looked like, so that was something that helped us along the way.”

The exposure that comes with playing in the NCAA tournament will “do amazing things” for Howard, Grace believes. The spotlight on historically Black colleges and universities continues to increase, and while she takes pride in working at an HBCU, she hopes that when her players compete, they are seen as competing at the same level as everyone else, and not be recognized as just a good HBCU team.

More than anything, she wants her players to soak in the experience.

“I want them to have fun,” Grace says. “I want them to enjoy this. I want them to compete, which I know they’re going to do. Just enjoy the moment. Be in the moment. Enjoy the moment, embrace the moment, and have fun with it. Enjoy each other and appreciate the time to be able to be on this type of stage.”