NORFOLK, Va. - The North Carolina A&T men's basketball had a near catastrophic end to each half on Friday. But in both instances, the Aggies gathered themselves and put the ball in the hoop enough times to walk away with an 84-78 win over Delaware State in the semifinals of the MEAC Tournament at The Norfolk Scope Arena.
The Aggies will advance to face Morgan State in the championship game Saturday evening at 5. The game will be televised live on ESPNU, and it will mark the Aggies first championship appearance in 16 years. They will be trying to claim their MEAC-leading 16th title, and their first since 1995.
A&T had five players score in double figures for the first time since Nov. 9, the first game of the season. Adrian Powell led the way with 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Lamont Middleton added 17 points, five boards and four assists. The Aggies (18-16) lost to Morgan State earlier this season, 55-52, in Greensboro.
"We're going to try to watch film for a little bit tonight as a staff, but the most important thing for our players is to get some rest," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander, who will be appearing in his ninth MEAC championship game as a head coach. "We have to get our focus on trying to beat a big and talented Morgan State team tomorrow."
Tomorrow will be the MEAC's 42nd title game. Alexander will now have been a part of 19 of them as either an assistant or a head coach. But getting to No. 19 was not easy even though there were times throughout the game it appeared the Aggies were going to blow out the Hornets.
Senior DaMetrius Upchurch put back a Jean Louisme miss to give the Aggies a 38-24 lead with 3:37 remaining in the first half. But that lead disappeared over the next three minutes as Delaware State got hot from 3-point range, hitting 7 of 12 in the first half. Four consecutive Albert Thomas free throws closed the gap to two, 40-38, with five seconds remaining in the half. But Louisme quickly pushed the ball up the floor and spotted Adrian Powell open in the corner. Powell knocked down the 3-point shot at the buzzer to send the Aggies into the locker room at halftime with a 43-38 lead.
"I spotted up because I knew he was going to give me the ball because he is an unselfish player," said Powell, who became the 28th player in school history to surpass the 1,000-career point plateau. "That was a big boost coming out for the second half."
It was so big, the Aggies led by as many as 13 in the second half as an Upchurch free throw gave A&T a 61-48 lead with 8:47 remaining. The Hornets were able to cut the lead to six over the next three minutes as a Marques Oliver dunk made it 63-57. But the Aggies were excellent at the free throw line, going 18-for-22 for the game. They used their free throw shooting to take a 76-66 lead with 1:17 remaining. But similar to the end of the first half, things began to get crazy. A&T turned the ball over three times in the final minute.
The first turnover resulted in an Oliver layup that cut the lead to 76-69. The second turnover led to Thomas layup and a 76-71 game. By the time the Aggies turned the ball over a third time, Oliver rolled to the basket for an easy layup and a two-point game, 80-78 with 19 second to play.
But the Aggies finally solved the Hornets pressure as Powell hit two free throws and broke away for a crowd-pleasing dunk that sent A&T into the championship round.
"They scored nine points in 50 seconds because we were forcing things and making uncharacteristic plays instead of letting the system work for us," said Alexander, who now has more MEAC Tournament wins (30) than any other coach in history. "We became undisciplined. We have to learn to keep our poise."
The Aggies did shoot 55 percent from the floor, marking the second time in the tournament they have shot 50 percent or better.
"I don't think we played very smart," said Alexander. "I thought we played well. I thought we shot the ball well from the floor and the free throw line, so obviously shooting the ball well trumps playing smart. We were able to grind and get us one tonight."
One more will mean an NCAA Tournament berth.