NORFOLK, Va. - Norfolk State's Rob Johnson may have hit the game-winning shot 20 minutes before Thursday night's game ended. Johnson's 3-pointer as time expired in the first half, gave the Spartans the momentum they needed to defeat North Carolina A&T, 55-48, in men's basketball at Echols Hall.
"I knew that shot was going to come back to haunt us," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander. "Instead of going into the locker room 21, 21, we went in 24-21. That kind of shot is huge we're trying to beat a team as good as Norfolk in their own gym."
Freshman center Bruce Beckford, who had 16 points and nine rebounds, agreed. "We never took the lead after that," he said. "It was like we were fighting to get back the rest of the game."
Beckford did get a tip-in to open the second half, and the Aggies trailed by just four, 36-32, with 11:50 to play after Lamont Middleton connected on a 3-pointer. But Pendarvis Williams was open in transition and knocked down a three to put the Spartans up seven.
An Aggies turnover would then led to another transition basket as the Spartans took a 41-32 lead with 11 minutes to play. The Aggies quickly cut the lead back to six on a Jean Louisme free throw and a Beckford dunk, but that preceded six possessions in which the Aggies missed three straight 3-pointers and turned the ball over three straight times.
Those possessions sparked a 9-0 run that gave the Spartans a 50-35 lead with 4:28 to play.
"We didn't play with a whole heckuva lot of confidence," said Alexander. "Hopefully our young people will learn from this game - you've got to play hard and you've got to play smart. I don't think we played hard enough. I don't think we played smart enough."
The win completed an undefeated season for Norfolk State (21-10, 16-0), who became the fourth team in MEAC history, and the first since Coppin State in 1993-94, to post an undefeated regular season. A&T owns one of those undefeated regular seasons, going 16-0 during the 1987-88 season.
A&T (15-16, 8-8 MEAC) closes out the regular season tied for sixth after being predicted to finish ninth in the preseason. The Aggies will garner the No. 7 seed in the upcoming MEAC Basketball Championship Tournament because they lost their head-to-head matchup with Delaware State, who also finished the regular season in sixth after a loss to S.C. State Thursday night.
The Aggies will open the tournament on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., at the Norfolk Scope in Norfolk, Va. The Spartans will open play on Wednesday at 6 p.m. They were led by Johnson's 18 points and eight rebounds. Williams added 16.
"(Norfolk State) is a very good team," said Alexander. "For a mid-major program, they have a very good inside, outside combination. They have size, and they have a young man in Williams, if you leave him open, he will knock down the three. What I take from tonight is that I believe we can play with the best team in the league."
The Aggies trailed by four, 21-17, with 2:33 to play in the first half. Jean Louisme, who had 12 of his 13 in the first half, scored on a layup to cut it to two. Austin Witter then followed an Adrian Powell miss with a dunk to tie it at 21 before Johnson's big jump shot.