When Byron Westmorland takes the floor with the rest of his Bowie State teammates Saturday night in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament, he'll do so knowing he's accomplished what he set out to do.
Two weeks ago he led Bowie State on an unexpected run through the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament. In the championship game, Westmorland scored a career-high 38 points to help the Bulldogs capture their first conference championship in 10 years, and earned game MVP honors in the process.
On Thursday, he was named to the NCAA Division II All-Atlantic Region first team, an honor that fits well with his membership on the all-conference and all-tournament teams.
Westmorland, who at 23.5 points per game is ranked second in the CIAA and seventh in the NCAA, has enjoyed quite the senior season. But Saturday's game against West Liberty University represents the final leg of his collegiate career, and one last chance to further cement himself as one of the school's all-time great players.
Westmorland grew up in Baltimore and starred for Mervo. As a senior, he was named to the Baltimore Sun All-Metro second team.
He landed at Baltimore City Community College. There he was introduced to Renard Smith, then the school's women's coach. When Smith left to become Bowie State's women's coach after Westmorland's freshman season, he told his new employers they had to give Westmorland a look.
"Renard told us this is a guy that can really play, can really shoot, can really score. We brought him in and right from that first workout, we knew, " said Bowie State coach Darrell Brooks. "He has such a pure stroke. You could see the athleticism. He was exciting to watch."
After transferring, Westmorland immediately stepped into a productive role on the court. On a team with several upperclassmen, he averaged 13.7 points. He followed that up by averaging 14.6 his junior year, though Bowie State was upset in in the CIAA Tournament semifinals.
But this year was different for the man they call Big Uncle West. With four starters lost to graduation, Westmorland found himself in a de facto leadership role.
"He was a guy that had the experience and the work ethic — always the first to practice and last to leave," Brooks said. "I knew that guys would follow him.
Though the individual results were there — Westmorland averaged 28.4 points through November — the team results were lacking. Bowie State started the season 0-4, including a three-point loss to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, one of the top D-II teams in the country
"We were playing so well against them and then we ended up losing the lead and we lost the game," said assistant coach Darius Wilson. "I think that game was the straw that broke the camel's back."
After that game, Wilson said, the seniors stepped up and took control of the team.
"Once our seniors started speaking up more and demanding more from players, I felt that helped," he said. "It's one thing to hear it from your coach. But if someone else says the same thing, it somehow makes sense."
For the naturally quiet and reserved Westmorland, that meant becoming more of a vocal leader on and off the court.
"I learned as a leader you've got to do more than just show it," he said. "I thought that people would follow me if I showed it. But it showed me that you can't just say you're a leader, that you have to act like one too."
The team finished the regular season 12-13, a far cry from the 22-6 record it held last year. But the Bulldogs got hot down the stretch when it mattered most.
The Bulldogs won their final three games of the regular season, and then ripped off four wins in four days — including upsets over Lincoln, Winston-Salem State and Livingstone — to win the CIAA championship.
And it was Westmorland at the center of that success. Having lost out on the conference player of the year award, Westmorland averaged 23 points and six rebounds during the tournament.
"Day 1, since I've been on campus, that's all we talked about is winning the CIAA tournament," Westmorland said. "I'm kind of glad we got bumped and bruised the first two years. It built me into a better player."
As they prepare for their game against top-seeded West Liberty, the Bowie State players and coaches realize they wouldn't be in this position without their star.
"I don't want to talk about it," Brooks said, laughing. "What happens when you lose a guy who every night out is a threat to get 30 points? You can't have him forever."
They won't have him forever, but they do have him now. And the Bowie State Bulldogs will go as far as Westmorland takes them.
"I've been living in the moment," he said. "I only get this shot once and you can't let the moment be bigger than you. You gotta be bigger than the moment."