WINSTON-SALEM - North Carolina A&T and Howard came into Tuesday's MEAC men's basketball tournament game looking to change their bad fortunes in postseason play to good.
A Calvin Thompson layup and two Mike Phillips free throws allowed Howard to do just that in a 51-50 win over A&T at Lawrence Joel Coliseum. A 1-for-11 shooting performance from 3-point range left the Aggies scratching their heads for answers to the puzzling trouble that has been the MEAC Tournament since the late 90's.
"We are a 34, 35 percent 3-point shooting team that went 1-for-11 today," said Aggies coach Jerry Eaves. "That is pretty much the tell-tale of the game. We could never hit a shot when we needed one. We did everything we wanted to do defensively. We turned them over the way I thought we would. We just didn't make any baskets."
A&T did what they wanted to defensively; holding the Bison to 31 percent shooting, while scoring 21 points off 20 Bison turnovers. Yet, the Aggies' tournament woes continued in part to not having leading scorer Nic Simpson for the fourth straight game. Simpson has been out with a season-ending knee injury.
Not having the senior guard has hampered the Aggies scoring. A&T failed to score more than 65 points in their final three games. In two of those games, they didn't score more than 50 points.
"We still had enough to win," said junior forward DaMetrius Upchurch, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds. "We talked to Nic every single day and told him we were going to get it done for him. Some things don't turn out the way you hope."
You don't have to tell Marc Hill that twice. In addition to Simpson's injury, another hurtful thing for the Aggies was senior Marc Hill's 0-for-9 performance from the field on Tuesday. Hill (5-8, SR, Bowie, Md.), who has scored more than 950 points in his career, went scoreless on Tuesday. A portion of Hill's frustrating afternoon included two missed free throws with the game tied at 47 with 3:02 remaining.
The misses loomed bigger because both teams struggled to score points over the next two minutes. Thompson finally broke the scoring lull when he went left and scored on a layup to give the Bison a 49-47 lead with 48 seconds remaining.
"Marc Hill is a super kid who had a great career," said Eaves. "I felt for him because he wanted to play so well. He missed the two free throws that would have put us up and in control. He is hurting right now. But I'll tell you this. I wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. He has won a lot of games for us, and has hit a lot of big shots."
Upchurch hit one of two free throws to move the Aggies to within one with 28 seconds remaining. Howard had a difficult time in-bounding the ball and getting it beyond halfcourt. After the Bison finally got into the frontcourt, Adrian Powell fouled Phillips. Phillips converted on two free throws to give the Bison a 51-48 lead with 15 seconds remaining.
After an Aggies timeout, Hill penetrated into the lane and dropped the ball of to Upchurch who scored two-feet away from the basket to move the Aggies to within one with 3.5 seconds remaining. Again, the Bison had a hard time getting the ball in play. In fact, Hill deflected the in-bound pass.
But by the time the Aggies came up with the loose ball, time expired. The tournament win was Howard's first in 10 years. Meanwhile, the Aggies failed to advance to the semis for the fourth straight year. The Aggies have not been to the MEAC championship game since 1997.
"It is frustrating," said Eaves about the Aggies past tournament failures. "We've come to the tournament for a number of years with 15 or 16 wins, and still have not scored the basketball. That is something the players have to take upon themselves to do this summer.
They're going to have to come into the gym and learn how to make shots when they count," Eaves continued. "They hit them during the regular season, but I mean this is the tournament. Winning the tournament is what we're playing for."
Powell led the Aggies with 16 points and seven rebounds. Austin Witter added six blocks. The Aggies are 5-14 in the MEAC tournament since losing 81-74 in overtime in the championship game of '97. All A&T can do now is work toward reversing the trend next season. The Aggies lose three seniors in Simpson, Hill and Jared Williams.
Despite that, the Aggies will be one of the more experienced teams in the conference next season. Guards Jean Louisme and R.J. Buck along with forwards Powell, Upchurch, Witter, Lawrence Smith, Dominique Behohn-Tolly will be seniors next season.
Six-foot-7 forwards Anthony Estes and Wayland Siverand will be sophomores next season, and point guard Jeremy Underwood will return to take over the point guard duties as a junior. The Aggies should also get back 6-8 junior college transfer Cristian Henry, who sat out this season.
Meanwhile, a lot of teams in the MEAC this season were loaded with seniors.
"We have the pieces to be really good next year," said Eaves. "But our gentlemen have to make a commitment. We have accomplished quite a bit, but come tournament time it doesn't show. The men who are coming back have to make a commitment today to play to the best of their abilities in every game, whether it is the regular season or the tournament."