TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - North Carolina A&T is longing for the good old days. The Aggie men's basketball team had moved close to the top of the MEAC standings in January thanks to a five-game winning streak that included three straight wins on the road.
That was then. The Aggies have now lost three straight thanks to an 87-77 loss to Florida A&M at the Al Lawson Center Monday night. A&T's bench scored 57 points led by Nic Simpson and DaMetrius Upchurch, who had 14 points apiece.
The bench was vital for A&T because coach Jerry Eaves benched all five of his starters within the first 90 seconds of the second half after FAMU opened the half on an 8-0 run to take a 47-31 lead.
"I had to bench them because they weren't going to play any basketball tonight," said Eaves. "My second team came in and played hard. They got us back into the game."
Despite the change, the Rattlers still took a 55-37 lead five minutes into the second half. Eventually, because Eaves' second unit was more inclined to dive for loose balls and execute the offense to his liking, the Rattlers' lead started to disappear.
When freshman Waylan Siverand tipped-in his own miss with 7:42 to play, the Aggies (10-15, 5-5 MEAC) were within three at 63-60.
The Rattlers scored the next eight points, including a 3-point play that didn't please Eaves too much. With the Aggies trailing by eight, 68-60, Chris Watson drove to the basket on a fast break layup. Aggie forward Lawrence Smith awaited Watson's arrival as Watson crashed into him making his layup.
Smith was called for the block and Watson connected on the free throw to give FAMU a 71-60 lead with 6 ½ minutes remaining. "I thought that was a huge block-charge call to where we could have stopped their momentum," said Eaves.
A&T continued to force FAMU turnovers to cut into the lead again. The Aggies forced 11 second-half Rattler turnovers. Consecutive layups by Upchurch cut the Rattlers lead to 77-71 with 2:20 remaining. But Watson hit two more free throws and Reggie Lewis broke free for a transition layup to seal the win for the Rattlers (7-17, 5-5 MEAC).
"I'm proud of my kids. They truly played hard for the last 16 minutes," Eaves said. "But I don't know what happened to our enthusiasm, the confident attitude and the willingness we had to work hard during the five-game winning streak. Somehow, we've gotten ourselves into a bad place. The bottom line is we're going to have to continue to work hard. When we worked hard, we got an opportunity to get back into the game. That's the key for us."
The Aggies have turned the ball over 43 times in their last two games, and they were outrebounded 45-29 on Monday, marking the third straight game they have been outrebounded. Their last two opponents have both shot better than 50 percent and scored 92 and 87 respectively.
The good news for A&T is a three-game homestand that begins on Saturday when S.C. State comes to Corbett Center to play the Aggies at 4 p.m.
"Early in the game, we had no intentions of taking care of the ball," said Eaves. "Our young people are going to have to make a decision on whether winning is important to them again. The importance of winning has slid to the back burner. Something else has become important to them. Winning needs to move the forefront again."
Reggie Lewis led the Rattlers with 20 points. Amin Stevens added 19 and Avery Moore finished with 18.