NORFOLK, Va. - The North Carolina A&T men's basketball team finally has its MEAC Tournament win, and the fan bases from A&T and N.C. Central finally have their dream postseason game.
The Aggies advanced in the MEAC Tournament on Tuesday with a 65-54 win over Florida A&M at The Scope. Lamont Middleton led the way with all 12 of his points coming in the second half.
It was A&T's first tournament win since 2010 when seniors Austin Witter, Adrian Powell, Lawrence Smith, R.J. Buck and DaMetrius Upchurch were freshmen. A&T's long awaited tournament win sets up a quarterfinal matchup with archrival N.C. Central. It will be the first time the two schools have played one another in the conference tournament since NCCU defeated A&T 80-79 in overtime in 1980.
"Deep down inside (N.C. Central is) who I wanted to play in this tournament because they have beat us the last four times," said Powell after scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds on Tuesday. "One of us has to beat the other to get this championship. It's going to be something."
What's even better is that it will be the primetime game on Wednesday with an 8 p.m., start. The Eagles, the tournament's No. 2 seed, has won five of six from A&T, including both games this season. But both of those games were decided by four points, and the Aggies are riding the momentum from beating the Rattlers for the third time this season.
"It was a good win for the psyche of these young men," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander, who won his 28th MEAC Tournament game and is now just one behind Coppin State's Ron "Fang" Mitchell for the all-time lead among active coaches. "It's been a long time trying to get by this first round. Now we've eliminated that hurdle, and we can just concentrate on playing a very, very good N.C. Central team tomorrow night."
Advancement didn't come easy for A&T (16-16). Even though the Aggies never trailed on Tuesday, the Rattlers would not let the game get out of hand. But every time the Rattlers got close, the Aggies had an answer. A&T took its biggest lead, 42-32, with 11:32 remaining. But a baseline jumper by Muhammad Abdul-Aleem and a 3-pointer by D'Andre Bullard quickly put the Rattlers down five.
Witter again put distance between the two teams with a three that gave A&T a 45-37 lead with 10:05 to play. FAMU would score the next four points before the Aggies put together a run to which the Rattlers never recovered. Freshman Bruce Beckford, a member of the MEAC's All-Rookie team, turned a Jamie Adams turnover into a 3-point play to give the Aggies a 48-41 lead.
On the Aggies next trip down the floor, senior guard Jean Louisme saw a need for an adjustment based on the Rattlers focus on taking away A&T cutters going into the lane. The Aggies swung the ball from side-to-side on the perimeter until Louisme came open at the top of the key. Louisme knocked down the 3-pointer to give the Aggies a 51-41 lead with 7:02 to play.
The closest the Rattlers were able to get after Louisme's shot was 58-51 with 2:50 to play. Louisme scored nine of his 11 points in the second half, and the Aggies shot 60 percent in the second half.
"For my money, that was the shot that turned the tide because it gave (Louisme) confidence," said Alexander. "Going into halftime, he had missed two or three wide open shots."
If the Aggies are able to advance on Wednesday, they will play in the semifinals Friday night at 8. The Aggies have not played in the MEAC semifinals since 2007.
The Rattlers (8-23) were led by Adams' 14 points and three assists.