DAYTON, Ohio — When asked about his team facing No. 1 Kentucky on Thursday, Hampton Coach Edward Joyner Jr., turned prop comic. He reached for his cellphone and put it against his left ear.
"I told you all I had Jesus on speed dial," he told reporters at a post-game news conference Tuesday night.
As reporters laughed, Joyner said, "Hey, Jesus, first of all, you can't play, so I ain't worried about you being hot. They want to know how much of a mountain (UK represents) and what our odds are."
After a pause, he said, "Hello? Hello?"
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With reporters laughing at the notion of Jesus hanging up on the Hampton coach, Joyner said, "I guess he'll get back to me. I'll get back to you.
"It's a heck of a mountain. You know what I'm saying? We know that."
It was the second time in two days that the idea of beating Kentucky inspired religious thought. Former UCLA and NBA star Reggie Miller, now an analyst for Turner Sports, said Monday that beating Kentucky would require "an act of God."
Hampton, which had a losing record (16-17) going into the First Four game against Manhattan here Tuesday, put itself in position to need divine assistance by winning 74-64. The Pirates won despite playing without their leading scorer (13.0 ppg), rebounder (7.5) and shot-blocker (43). Dwight Meikle, a 6-foot-8 junior, missed a fourth straight game because of a high ankle sprain. Joyner expressed doubt that Meikle would play against UK.
Quinton Chievous, a 6-6 transfer from Tennessee, led Hampton with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Of facing Kentucky Thursday, Chievous said, "Really just going in with a great mindset. Not being intimidated. And just playing as hard as we can and knocking down all our shots."
Joyner expressed the hope that Chievous' experience at the Southeastern Conference level would be helpful.
"I hope he won't be awed," the Hampton coach said. "We definitely don't need him to be. But I think it could be huge for us because he can talk to the guys about how to understand the moment."
Hampton spoiled a story line of Manhattan Coach Steve Masiello facing Kentucky, his alma mater, on Thursday.
It was a story line that Masiello resisted. On Monday, he used a memorable analogy to drive home the point that his team was concentrating on Hampton on Tuesday, not Kentucky on Thursday.
"If Hampton was our girlfriend, there would be a restraining order on us," he said. "That's where we're at. We're eating, sleeping, breathing Hampton."
But Manhattan (19-14)did not look consumed with Hampton. The Jaspers never led, made only 37.1 percent of its shots (which defused the signature pressing style that Masiello learned from then UK Coach Rick Pitino) and made only six of 25 three-point shots.
On Monday, Masiello questioned whether the NCAA Selection Committee intentionally created a Manhattan-Kentucky story line.
"Listen, it's obvious what they do," he said. "They want stories. ... I don't know if we can get past Hampton."
The Jaspers could not. But Masiello recoiled from the idea that the Kentucky talk distracted his team.
"I don't think it was distracting at all," he said. "I mean, we followed our normal protocol of how we prepare. So, no, I don't think we were distracted."
Reginald Johnson, one of three Hampton starters 6-2 or shorter, had acknowledged that the Pirates had thought about Kentucky before playing Manhattan.
"A little bit," he said Monday.
Now, Hampton can talk about Kentucky a lot. The conversation includes the program's contribution to the charm of NCAA Tournament upsets. In 2001, Hampton, a 15 seed, beat second-seeded Iowa State 58-57.
As even casual followers of college basketball know, no 16-seeded team has ever beaten a one seed.
After putting his cellphone down, the Hampton coach said, "We're going to go fight tooth and nail. You can believe that."