PRINCESS ANNE, Md. – North Carolina A&T spotted Maryland Eastern Shore a 27-point lead and then made a frenzied comeback over the final 15 minutes of the game before falling short 67-60 at Hytche Athletic Center Saturday evening in men’s basketball action.
“We don’t understand as a coaching staff why we constantly get off to these slow starts,” said A&T head coach Cy Alexander. “We dig ourselves these humungous holes because we don’t play good defense.”
Indeed, for the second straight game the Aggies found themselves down by 20 before the game was 15-minutes old. Last Monday the Aggies trailed Coppin State 24-4 in the first half and on Saturday the Hawks took a 31-9 lead on a Mark Blackmon steal and an Ishaq Pitt layup at the 6:20 mark of the first half.
“Our work Wednesday, Thursday and Friday was 75 percent defense and still for 28 minutes we didn’t play the type of defense we needed until after we started to make the run,” said Alexander.
UMES (3-15, 1-5 MEAC), a team that came into the game shooting 37 percent from the floor, shot 54 percent in the first half to take a 37-21 halftime lead. The Hawks’ hot shooting continued into the second half as KyRee Jones started the second half with a three and Pitt capped the 15-4 run with a transition layup to give the Hawks a 52-25 lead with 15:02 to play.
A&T (7-15, 3-4 MEAC) would dominate play the rest of the way. A combination of pressure defense, great defense around the basket and the solid play of freshman point guard Michael Briscoe helped the Aggies rally. The Aggies scored 13 consecutive points that ended when Briscoe, who was in the game because senior guard Jeremy Underwood had four fouls, intercepted a Pitt pass and scored on a layup to make it a 52-38 game with 12:17 remaining.
Bryan Akinkugbe got the Aggies to within single digits for good when he took a no-look pass from Richaud Pack to bring UMES’ lead down to 56-48 with six minutes to play. Things got even tighter when Pack took a pass from Briscoe in transition and nailed a 3-pointer from the wing to slice the lead down to 59-55 with 4:50 remaining.
After Bruce Beckford blocked what looked like a sure layup from Jones, Akinkugbe got the Aggies to within two by putting back a Pack miss. A&T’s opportunity to tie the game came as a result of Troy Snyder being called for an offensive foul. But on the Aggies next possession, Briscoe missed a tough runner in the lane. The Aggies got the ball back but again failed to tie the game after a Briscoe turnover, his only one in a game where he had a season-high six assists.
“I thought he did a good job,” said Alexander about Briscoe. “He has to know who to get the ball to in certain situations. But overall for a freshman in this type of climate, under these kinds of circumstances, trying to come back, I thought he did a satisfactory job.”
Briscoe’s turnover did lead to a Hakeem Baxter dunk that gave the Hawks a 61-57 lead with 2:24 to play. A minute later, an Akinkugbe turnover led to a Jones jumper that gave the Hawks a six-point advantage with 38 seconds to play. Pack answered with a 3-pointer to make it 63-60, but the Hawks would knock down their free throws to end their 13-game losing streak.
“When you’re coming back, everything has to be perfect,” said Alexander. “We made too many crucial errors late in the game to sustain what we were trying to do. We’re not the perfect basketball team, so we fell a little short.”
For the third straight game Pack had a 20-point performance as he finished with 21. Beckford, the conference leader in rebounding, added 10 points and nine rebounds.
Baxter finished with 26 points on 12-for-13 shooting at the foul line for the Hawks. Jones added 16.
The Aggies return to action 7:30 p.m., Monday when they face Howard at Burr Gymnasium in Washington, D.C.