GREENSBORO -- #blowout. #defense.
If the North Carolina A&T men's basketball team was trending on twitter, the team would be located with those two hashtags. The Aggies just put together one of their best two-game defensive stretches since they became an NCAA school in 1952. A&T held the Bison to 25 percent shooting in a 61-37 domination at Corbett Sports Center Saturday evening.
A week ago, the Aggies held Florida A&M to 22.8 percent shooting in 28-point win in Tallahassee, Fla. A&T (9-10, 2-2 MEAC) has now won four out of its last five contests with two more home games remaining in January.
"We've said from day one that our identity needed to be one the defensive end," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander. "When we were going through our minor losing streak, we were playing good defense, we just couldn't make shots. But now that we've raised our defensive intensity to another level, our shooting is coming around a little bit, and we're looking a lot better. But if we're going to make any noise in the MEAC, we've got to do it from the defensive end."
All the noise early on came from senior forward Adrian Powell. Powell had 15 points on four 3-pointers before the first 10 minutes of the first half were completed. His 15th point came in transition as junior point guard Jeremy Underwood found him trailing the break and swung a pass in his direction. Powell calmly set his feet and swished another 3-pointer from the left elbow to give A&T a 22-11 lead with 10:10 to play in the first half.
"Obviously Adrian Powell was extremely hot in the first half, and we made every effort to try to get him the basketball," said Alexander. "That's growth when you start understanding who's going, and everyone sacrifices themselves to get the ball to the guy who is knocking down the shots."
Senior center DaMetrius Upchurch then went to work. His tip-in, free throw and follow-up dunk of an Adrian Powell missed layup helped the Aggies take a 30-13 lead with 7:04 remaining before halftime. Meanwhile, the Bison struggled mightily. Howard, who was already playing without second-leading scorer Calvin Thompson, lost its top scorer, Mike Phillips with two fouls, within the first three minutes of the game.
The lack of offensive power started to take effect close to the ten-minute mark of the first half. The Bison went the final 9:36 of the first half without a point as the Aggies led 38-13 at the half. It marked the second straight game the Aggies have held a conference opponent to only 13 first-half points. The Aggies were successful in cutting off the Howard offense, so that they couldn't swing the ball from one side of the court to the other with is circular offense. The Aggies also threw in a matchup zone to contest the Howard shooters.
"They are a good team if they can put the ball on the deck and penetrate," said Alexander. "We tried to cut off their penetration and be there on the catch when their shooters caught the ball."
The Aggies were not as dominant in the second half. They used a lot of different lineups to close out the Bison in the lopsided win. The one the thing that remained constant was A&T's defense. Howard's 37 points is the second lowest point total a MEAC school has scored against the Aggies since the shot clock era began in 1985. Thirty-seven is also the lowest amount of points either team has ever scored in the 95-game series history.
"We definitely pride ourselves on defense," said A&T senior forward Austin Witter, who came into the game leading the conference in blocked shots. "It's the thing that gets us going, defensive transition to offense. We try to get as many stops as we can in a row, and then run the floor and find shooters. The only thing left is to hit shots."
Adrian Powell scored 21 of his game-high 23 points in the first half, and is now 170 points shy of 1,000 for his career. Powell also added seven rebounds. Powell described himself as a rhythm shooter.
"Once I hit my first two shots, I knew I was on," he said. "My teammates kept getting me ball, I was open, and so I kept knocking down shots."
The Aggies hope Powell stays in rhythm as they invite a tough Morgan State team to Corbett Saturday, Jan. 16 at 4 p.m.