GREENSBORO – The tendinitis in Bryan Akinkugbe’s knee has hampered him since he arrived in Greensboro this past summer from Columbia State Community College.
It prevented the 6-foot-9 North Carolina A&T center from playing in the Dominican Republic in August. He missed a lot of practice time leading up to the season, and he did not play in the Aggies’ first two games of the season.
On Thursday night however, he showed signs of what type of player he can be for the A&T men’s basketball team once he is fully recovered. Akinkugbe finished with a season-high 12 points, added five rebounds and made some key defensive plays down the stretch to help the Aggies earn a 62-59 win over the Raiders at Corbett Sports Center. The Aggies improved to 3-5 with their second win in three games.
“Tonight was huge for me,” said Akinkugbe. “I’ve been trying so hard to rehab and get right. I feel like I got my confidence back after not playing a whole lot.”
Akinkugbe’s performance was big because the Aggies were playing without leading rebounder and double-figure scorer Bruce Beckford who was sidelined with a concussion. In his absence, the Aggies trailed Wright State 57-55 with 2:44 remaining. Freshman Jerome Simmons changed all of that when he blocked AJ Pacher’s shot in the lane, which turned into a transition opportunity for A&T.
Middleton finished the fastbreak opportunity with a layup and was fouled as he converted the 3-point play to give A&T a 58-57 advantage. Wright State’s Jeran Young put the Raiders back in front by laying in the ricochet from Akinkugbe’s block of a Matt Vest layup with 1:50 to play.
The Aggies then went inside to Akinkugbe who was fouled by Young with 1:36 remaining. Akinkugbe stepped to the line and netted two free throws without the ball touching any iron. After a Raider turnover, A&T guard Lamont Middleton hit one of two free throws to give A&T a 61-59 lead.
JT Yoho was headed toward tying the game for Wright State with 28 seconds remaining. His pump fake got him into the lane, but Akinkugbe would jump in front of him and throw up his long arms, forcing Yoho to pick up his dribble and eventually turn the ball over.
“This was Bryan’s best game,” said A&T head coach Cy Alexander. “He’s been injured. You probably saw him limping out there. He’s battling through it. He really doesn’t practice all the time because we are trying to save him.”
Yoho’s turnover landed in in the hands of Simmons who went to the line and connected on one of two free throws, giving Wright State another chance to tie the game. But Pacher’s 3-point attempt hit the back of the iron and Kendall Griffin’s desperation three hit nothing as time expired.
To our young men’s credit, they came out defensively in the second half and got stops, “ said Alexander after his team trailed 28-23 at the half. “We shot the ball a lot better in the second half. What we didn’t do is make free throws throughout the course of the game. But I have to give Bryan Akinkugbe credit. He stepped up and made two clutch free throws. And then freshman Jerome Simmons made one out of two. That was just as big because it put us up three.”
Richaud Pack led the Aggies with 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Middleton added 14 points and Jeremy Underwood finished with 10 points and four assists. Wright State (5-5), who is still winless on the road, was led by Vest’s 15 points.
The Aggies held the lead most of the first half, but a Yoho 3-pointer and layup helped the Raiders tie the game at 22. After a Khary Doby free throw, the Raiders scored six straight points thanks to three Aggie turnovers.