GREENSBORO - What started out as a negative turned into an extraordinary positive for the North Carolina A&T men's basketball team Wednesday night. So much so, the Aggies were able to come away with one of the biggest wins in the program's recent history as they defeated Mid-Major No. 16 Eastern Kentucky 78-67 at Corbett Sports Center.
The Colonels (9-2) came into the game with three wins over upper echelon MEAC schools, including two convincing wins over Delaware State and defending MEAC Champion Norfolk State. In addition, the Colonels were very competitive in a loss to No. 10 Illinois on Sunday. Early on against A&T Wednesday night, they looked as good as advertised.
EKU connected on 8 of its first 9 3-pointers. The Aggies (5-7) turned the ball over 12 times in the first 15 minutes of the game, and with four minutes remaining in the first half, the Colonels led 36-20. Just when it seemed things couldn't get worse, they did.
Freshman Bruce Beckford went hard to the basket. He thought he was fouled, but no whistle blew. In frustration, he slammed the ball to the floor. A technical foul was administered. Glenn Cosey went to the line to convert the free throw that gave the Colonels their largest lead of the game at 17 points. Surprisingly, almost everything went A&T's way from there.
Not pleased with the technical or his team's play to that point, A&T head coach Cy Alexander put in what he called his "energy team." It included seldom used players R.J. Buck and Dominique Behohn-Tolly along with guards Lamont Middleton and Jean Louisme and forward Adrian Powell.
It worked. Behohn-Tolly, who had not seen action since Nov. 20, secured two rebounds, dished out an assist and recorded a steal in 3 ½ minutes. Over the same timeframe, Buck scored a basket and assisted on another. By halftime, the Colonels' lead was down to eight, 37-29.
"Dominique Behohn-Tolly, who is the greatest practice player in the world, never plays and never complains," said Alexander about the 6-foot-6 senior center out of Cameroon, Africa. Behohn-Tolly got his chance in part because forwards DaMetrius Upchurch (nose) and Waylan Siverand (hand) were out with injuries.
"Tonight was his not to shine, and he did an outstanding job," Alexander added. "He brought energy. I thought Buck brought us some energy. We came out of the locker room (at halftime), and the guys were feeling very, very positive. Those two guys turned the energy level up."
And it showed. Ten minutes into the second half, the Aggies completed what turned out to be a 30-7 run that extended over two halves as Adrian Powell's layup gave A&T a 50-44 lead. The lead ballooned to double-figures, 57-46, on two Jeremy Underwood free throws with 6:03 to play. Two minutes later, when Middleton raced down the floor and lobbed up a pass that Austin Witter dunked for a 63-50 lead, the Aggies had complete control of the game.
Louisme led the Aggies with a career-high 18 points and five rebounds. Powell had 16 points and eight rebounds, and Witter finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
"Fortunately for us, their threes stop falling," Alexander said. "Every timeout, I just kept reminding our guys, 'They cannot keep making threes. Weather the storm. They're a great 3-point shooting team, but they're not perfect.'"
Alexander said the Aggies also executed the game plan. Defensively, they wanted to force the Colonel to one side of the floor and funnel them into the lane where Witter, one of the best shot blockers in the MEAC, would be waiting. A&T was also efficient offensively.
"Jean Louisme made some tough threes, and I thought Lamont Middleton did a yeoman job of getting to the basket and hitting the open guy. The way they play, I knew if we could turn the corner, somebody was going to be open. All we had to do is catch it and shoot it."
The Aggies shot 64 percent in the second half. They shot 55.3 percent for the game, and they were an incredible 24-for-36 (.667) inside the 3-point arc. The Aggies ran their offense from the high post and through Middleton, their point guard. The result was cutters getting open for layups and Middleton finishing the night with 12 points and eight assists.
"This program needed a breakthrough win," Alexander said. "We've been very close in the past. Since I've been here, we've been very close in some games, but we needed to break through. We've been playing well, but it was time for us to play well and actually win."
The Aggies can relish in this win going into Christmas. They don't return to competition until Dec. 28 when they travel to Lubbock, Texas to play Texas Tech on Dec. 28 at 7 p.m.