STATESBORO, Ga. - Two and seven are two important numbers North Carolina A&T head men's basketball coach Cy Alexander will carry with him into conference play next week. Thanks to the Aggies 71-65 win over Georgia Southern at Hanner Field House on Saturday, the Aggies (7-9) earned their first two-game winning streak of the season and their seventh non-conference win.
The two-game winning streak is vital as the Aggies hope to build some momentum heading into exclusive conference play starting on Saturday, Jan. 12 at Bethune-Cookman. Seven is crucial because prior to the season, Alexander told his staff and his team if the Aggies could muster seven non-conference wins, it would go a long way in helping A&T secure its first winning season in 15 years.
"The young men are starting to believe in each other and believe in the system," said Alexander. "They know they can go out and win on the road against a good team like Georgia Southern or NJIT. Tonight was a huge win and a big boost for the program. It gives us confidence we can go into a place like Bethune-Cookman, where the Aggies haven't won in a long time, and be successful."
A&T's drought in winning seasons is surpassed by its drought in Daytona Beach, Fla. The Aggies haven't won at Bethune-Cookman since 1995. But this time the Aggies travel to Florida with a player in Adrian Powell who has scored 20-plus points in his last two outings, as he finished with 23 points, nine rebounds and four steals against the Eagles.
Alexander also has freshman Bruce Beckford playing with a lot of confidence. Jean Louisme, a Fort Myers, Fla. native, will be going into conference play off of a career-high 23 points.
"I thought Bruce Beckford, Adrian Powell and Jean Louisme were big for us down the stretch," said Alexander. "I thought they hit some big shots and free throws to pull us through tonight."
Former MEAC Player of the Year and Bethune-Cookman transfer C.J. Reed hit a 3-pointer in the corner to tie the game at 56 with 4:09 remaining. On the Aggies next possession, A&T point guard Lamont Middleton lobbed a pass inside to Beckford. Beckford pump faked twice and went up for a tough layup in the paint. GSU answered with a layup by Marvin Baynham, but Beckford wasn't fazed.
He pulled up for a baseline jumper that gave the Aggies a 60-58 lead as he turned to the A&T bench and flexed his muscles with 2:51 remaining. Powell followed up the play with a steal and a layup to push the lead to four. A 3-point play by Eric Ferguson, who finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, cut the lead to 62-61.
It was then Louisme's turn. He pump faked, took GSU's Cleon Roberts baseline, and pulled up for a tough jumper. He connected and was fouled on the play, completing the 3-point conversion to give the Aggies a 65-61 lead with 45 seconds remaining. The Aggies secured the win with Louisme and Powell free throws.
Despite there being eight ties in the game, GSU fought uphill for most of the contest. The Eagles trailed by as many as 11 in the first half, eight early in the second half and by six with 8 ½ minutes remaining in the game.
"I really think those three guys were clutch," said Alexander about Louisme, Powell and Beckford. "Georgia Southern kept making runs, and those three guys kept making big shot after big shot over the last 10 minutes of the game."
GSU fell to 6-9 as Reed and Tre Bussey finished with 12 points apiece. Junior point guard Jeremy Underwood came off the Aggies' bench to record 12 points and no turnovers in 21 minutes of action. The two numbers A&T is now in search of are one and three. They hope to earn conference win No. 1 next Saturday, while winning their third straight.
Alexander said preparation for Bethune-Cookman starts Monday.
"Every day for five days, we're going to be putting in our offensive and defensive game plans for Cookman," he said.