WINSTON-SALEM-Redshirt sophomore guard Amber Calvin scored 24 of her 26 points in the second half, and carried the North Carolina A&T women's basketball team from the brink of a blowout to the precipice of one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the program.
Coppin State's offensive rebounding and timely foul shooting ended the historic comeback attempt as the Eagles advanced to the MEAC Basketball Tournament semifinal with a 78-74 win over the Aggies Thursday afternoon at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
Behind 23 points with 15:55 left in the game, the Aggies were led by Calvin to pull ahead 68-63 with 4:44 remaining in the quarterfinal game. Calvin scored 15 points during an incredible offensive 14-minute stretch in which the Aggies outscored the Eagles 35-7.
The Aggies held on to the lead until the 1:28 mark when Larrisa Carter capitalized on an Aggies turnover and scored on an easy layup to give the Eagles a 70-69 lead . After a Kyra Coleman free throw, junior JaQuayla Berry added a jumper to tie the game at 71-71 with a minute left. Two Aggie turnovers and 4-for-6 shooting from the free throw line helped the Eagles score the next six points for a 77-71 lead.
Calvin hit a three-pointer with five seconds left to try to keep the Aggies within arms-reach of the Eagles. The excitement continued as the Aggies' stingy defense did not allow Coppin State to inbound the ball. Dawnnae Roberts' inbound eventually went errant, giving the Aggies the ball back underneath their own basket with 5.5 seconds remaining.
The Aggies got the ball into the hands of Calvin for a last-attempt shot, but Calvin may have thought she had less time than she did, as her rushed shot hit the edge of the backboard. The Eagles got the ball and Calvin fouled out of the game. Shawntae Payne hit a free throw to end the game and push Coppin State into the semifinals against No. 1 Hampton.
"We were right there. Being down by so many points, by 18 in the first half, and to come back in the second half-we fought. And we fought against a very good team. Coppin State is really a good team," Bibbs said.
The Aggies went 9-for-17 at the line in the second half, and missed five free throws in the last six minutes of the game. That could have spelled the difference for the Aggies.
"We could have won it at the free throw line. They really got on the boards and out-rebounded us. I always say if you want that championship, you've got to do your rebounding and you've got to knock down free throws. But I'm so proud, so very proud of these ladies. If you wanted to see a good ballgame, that was a good game, it really was. In this business, only one team is going to win it though. Unfortunately it wasn't us. "
For the second straight time versus Coppin State, the Aggies found themselves down by a large margin at halftime. On Jan. 23, they were down by 19. On Thursday, the Aggies trailed 44-26.
The Aggies had 17 turnovers in the first half, off of which the Eagles were able to capitalize for 21 points. The Aggies turned it around in the second half by stepping up their defense, and going to full court man-to-man press. The defensive adjustments worked as the Aggies forced 13 CSU turnovers and held them to 37 percent shooting. The Aggies also committed just nine second-half turnovers and doubled their rebounding total in the second half. The Aggies had to finish the game without their two bigs, forward sophomore Tiffanie Adair and junior center Nikia Gorham, who both fouled out.
"When you play man-to-man defense, you have to play man-to-man defense. You've got to play passing lanes, you've got to help sides, you've got to be in on people. That's what they came back with. They were more aggressive. A lot of time s an aggressive team will come out on top," Bibbs said. "Defense is what gets us going. We really wanted to be more intense. I like pressure defense. Just going man-to-man defense full court rushed things up for [the Eagles]."
Berry, who finished the game with 17 points, said that the team's spirit also helped them generate the rally.
"Once we get started, there's not too much that can stop us," Berry said. "That's just what we wanted to do. When we get energized, and get the whole team, not just the people on the court, but the whole team into the game, then just seeing everybody getting hype, gives us the extra push we need. That's what happened. We got on a roll and we just kept it going."
Unfortunately the roll didn't go far enough, as the Aggies find themselves out of the running for their third MEAC tournament crown.
As much as Thursday's loss hurts now, the Aggies can take comfort in knowing that the development their team saw this season will pay off next season.
"It's a young team. It's been ups and downs, but it's just teaching. That's what we were doing-just teaching. You've got to compete though," said Bibbs. "There just isn't enough time to grow up with very good teams in this conference. But we're going to grow and we're growing. These freshmen have probably got more playing time than any other freshmen in the conference."
She looks to return her entire team, which was the sixth youngest in Division I this year, next season. Berry, already a member of the 1,000-point club, and Gorham will be seniors in 2012-13. Calvin will have another two years to compete, and is already in excellent shape to make a run for the A&T all-time assists record. She ends the 2011-12 season with 208 assists and 753 points for her career. The all-time assists record is 393 held by Ta'Wuana Cook. Calvin has a good chance to match that record and also join the 1,000-point club in the next two years.
All-MEAC Rookie member Tiffanie Adair could have another three years in the Aggies' program if everything works out academically. Tracy King, who would have been a contender for All-MEAC honors before being injuring her knee midway through January, will be back next season along with rising junior DeAndre Davis.
The eight freshmen on the team will become experienced sophomores. Six of the eight freshmen-Kelsei Ewings, ChyAnna Cunningham, Jessica Lyons, Adriana Nazario, Jaylan Bodiford and Ariel Bursey-- started in games this season and earned valuable playing time. "In some ways when you lose, you actually win. My young kids they've grown up the whole year. They're young and they're hurting. But there's a great future. Someone's going to have to reckon with this team," Bibbs said.