GREENSBORO - The free throw line has at times been a spooky place for the North Carolina A&T men's basketball team. But the Aggies were able to exorcise their demons in a 59-57 win over Savannah State at Corbett Sports Center, Monday night, in a live nationally-televised game on ESPNU.
Before the final minute of Monday's win, the Aggies first over the Tigers in three tries, it appeared the Aggies were ready to repeat previous poor free throw shooting performances that were costly.
There was the 9-for-25 performance at CSU Bakersfield in late December. In late January, the Aggies went 10-for-18 in a loss to Morgan State. And of course, there was the Aggies' 6-for-19 performance in a loss at N.C. Central at the end of February.
On Monday, the Aggies were 12-for-24 at the line over the first 39 minutes of the game. Among those missed free throws was an 0-for on three straight free throws by Adrian Powell with 7:35 remaining and the Aggies leading 50-45.
With the MEAC Basketball Tournament approaching and with the game on the line, A&T head coach Cy Alexander believed it was important to return Powell to the scary place called the free throw line with the game tied at 52 with 52 seconds remaining. The Aggies called a play in which they cleared out the lane and had Powell post up in the high post.
"We just wanted him to go to work," said Alexander. "We didn't tell him that we wanted him to go to the line. But in mind, the way (the officials) were calling it, if he did anything strong, he was going to get fouled."
Savannah State's Khary White did foul him, sending Powell, who was 1-for-5 at the line at the time, back to the line.
"I wanted him to believe in himself and hit those two free throws," Alexander said. "I was really concerned that the free throws he missed earlier were going to come back to haunt us."
Powell's two made free throws with 43 seconds remaining started an epidemic. Eleven seconds later, Lamont Middleton stepped to the line and hit two free throws to give the Aggies a 56-52 lead. The Tigers cut the lead to one on a Rashad Hassan free throw and layup. Middleton hit one of two free throws to put the Aggies ahead 57-55 with 23 seconds remaining.
Hassan then went into the lane to tie the game, but the MEAC's leading shot blocker, Austin Witter, swatted his sixth shot of the game and got the ball into the hands of Middleton. Middleton hit two more free throws with 4.3 seconds remaining to clinch the win for A&T (15-15, 8-7 MEAC). The Aggies went 7-for-8 at the line over the final minute of the game.
"Hopefully, we have erased some of the bad memories we have had at the free throw line," Alexander said. "I was glad to see Lamont Middleton step up in the clutch and do the exact same thing Adrian did."
Powell had 18 points and Middleton added 17. Bethune-Cookman's loss to Hampton puts A&T alone in seventh place in the conference. With one regular-season game remaining, the Aggies can finish anywhere between sixth and eighth place. The Aggies' seeding in the tournament will be decided after their Thursday night game (8 p.m.) at Norfolk State (20-10, 15-0), the No. 1 team in the conference.
"Right now, at this point in the season, it's all about momentum," said Alexander, who has seen his team win two straight. "Quite frankly, we're still trying to win our third straight for the first time this year."
The Aggies opened the game on an 11-0 run and took a 33-18 lead into the locker room at the half. But Preston Blackman cut the Aggies lead to 48-43 on a 3-pointer with 11:08 remaining. A Witter steal led to a Powell layup to put the Aggies ahead 50-43 with 9:42 remaining. It would be the Aggies final field goal of the game, but their ability to overcome the frightening free throw line led to victory.
Savannah State (17-13, 10-5 MEAC), who never led in the game, got 17 points from Blackman and 14 points and nine rebounds from Rashad Hassan.