GREENSBORO-In an obscure gymnasium in Newark, N.J., in December, North Carolina A&T men's basketball player Austin Witter came to the realization that he was a defensive stopper.
Once he made that discovery, he turned the Aggies into one of the best defensive teams in the country. He was rewarded for his efforts on Sunday as he was voted the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year by MEAC head coaches and sports information directors. Witter (6-8, 195, Princeton Junction, N.J.) was also named third-team All-MEAC along with fellow senior forward Adrian Powell (6-6, 188, Conover, N.C.). Freshman center Bruce Beckford (6-7, 215, Silver Spring, Md.) made the All-Rookie team.
"He has really saved us defensively," Alexander said about Witter. "When we make mishaps on the perimeter (defensively), his ability to block shots saves us."
Witter blocked eight shots at New Jersey Institute of Technology on Dec. 15. Witter's defensive showing won him the first of his three MEAC Defensive Player of the Week honors during the 2012-13 season. Alexander said it was at the point when Witter discovered he could also earn recognition playing defensive.
Witter began taking pride in his blocked shot numbers, and the chase for Thomas Coleman's school record was on. Thomas Coleman, the Aggies all-time leading shot blocker, blocked a then single-season school record 85 shots as a sophomore in 2008-09. It was a season before Witter arrived to A&T. Witter not only broke Coleman's record, he is closing in on 100 swats as he enters this week's MEAC tournament with 93.
"I sat back and just watched T-Cole do his thing," said Witter. "I knew one day it would be my time."
With Coleman patrolling the lane, Witter was used as a perimeter defender to cause problems for shooters with his length and quickness.
"I've always considered myself a shot blocker. I blocked plenty of shots in high school," said Witter. "But that was not my role when I came to A&T."
Alexander, in his first season as the Aggies head coach, needed a defensive presence in the lane. He moved Witter to the power forward position, and Witter flourished from there. Witter leads the conference and ranks 10th nationally in blocked shots with 3.1 per game. He also leads the conference in defensive rebounds with 5.9 per game, and he is the fourth-leading rebounder at 7.2 per contest.
Witter broke the school record for blocked shots on March 2 at home against S.C. State. He recorded four blocks against the Bulldogs for his 86th. But his importance is not seen in his numbers as much as his presence.
A&T ranks 14th in the nation in field goal percentage defense because even when Witter is not blocking shots, he is altering them. Teams are only shooting .384 against A&T.
"Austin is our last line of defense," Alexander said. "The program is certainly going to miss that next year or until we are able to find our next last line of defense. He has been an integral part of our whole defensive scheme this year."
Along with Powell and Beckford, Witter will lead the Aggies into MEAC tournament play against Florida A&M on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., at the Norfolk Scope.
Powell is tied for the team-lead in scoring at 12.2 points per game. He had a career-high 29 points against N.C. Central on Dec. 1. Beckford won MEAC Rookie of the Week twice. He started 24 games and averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, while shooting .523.