GREENSBORO - Junior point guard Jeremy Underwood doesn't start, but it is almost a guarantee he will have the ball in his hands with a North Carolina A&T men's basketball game on the line. For the third time in two weeks, Underwood hit a big shot to lead the Aggies to victory. This time it was a 3-pointer with 31 seconds remaining that helped the Aggies earn a 64-56 win over Florida A&M at Corbett Sports Center, Monday night.
Two weeks ago Underwood hit a 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining to help the Aggies defeat Coppin State by one. Five days later, Underwood had a 3-point play that led A&T to a two-point win at Maryland Eastern Shore.
"The staff has been trying to make me into a point guard, and teach me how to run my team," said Underwood, who actually did start the second half and nearly played 20 minutes. "I'm still learning, but I'm going to do whatever it takes for us to win. If I have to come off the bench in order to help my team win, then that's what I'm going to do."
The Aggies led 57-54 after overcoming a 40-32 deficit at the 15-minute mark of the second half. FAMU's Terry Kellum pulled the Ratters to within one on a dunk with 1:27 remaining. A&T head coach Cy Alexander then called a timeout, and made sure his free throw lineup, which consists of the Aggies four best free throw shooters, was in the game.
Alexander wanted to get the team's leading scorer Lamont Middleton the ball on a screen. It didn't work out. The next option was to get the ball to second-leading scorer Adrian Powell down low. But the Rattlers switched and put a new defender on Powell after a screen was set, and the new defender guarding Underwood backed off to pay more attention to Powell, leaving Underwood open.
He took the opportunity to rise up and knock down the three to extend the Aggies lead to four. Two free throws apiece from Austin Witter and Middleton sealed the win.
"I knew he was going to hit the shot," said Alexander. "This young man is a gym rat. He is a good student of the game, and I've watched him grow as a person and as a basketball player. He's playing within himself, and he is not doing things that lead to turnovers. I thought he was a turnover waiting to happen last year, but he is now making much better decisions with the basketball. He has a warrior's mentality."
The execution at the end made up for what had been a poor shooting night for the home team, as they made 22 of 56 shots from the field (39 percent). However, the Aggies converted 19 offensive rebounds into 19 second chance points.
Bruce Beckford turned in an efficient night with 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, and a perfect 6-for-6 from the foul line. Powell added 11 points, while Middleton finished with 10. Witter continued his outstanding defensive play, as he finished with eight points, 13 rebounds (five offensive), three assists, three blocks and three steals.
Abdul-Aleem led the Rattlers (6-18, 3-7 MEAC) with 16 points, while Jamie Adams added 13.
"Our men played with great poise, especially in the last 10 minutes," said Alexander. "We could have shut down, especially when we were down, but we turned up the defense, and got shots we wanted on offense."
Next will be a reunion for Alexander, as the Aggies travel to S.C. State, where he won five MEAC titles in 16 years, to play the Bulldogs at 4 p.m., on Saturday.
"It will be a war down there," he said. "I'm excited to be back in Orangeburg for the game, but our goal is to get one of those top three spots in the conference. We have not won three games in a row this year, and now is the time to get it done."