NORFOLK, Va. - If there were ever three entities that needed one another, it was North Carolina A&T fans, Cy Alexander and the five A&T men's basketball four-year seniors.
For many years, A&T fans walked around with their chest out and their heads held high. A&T tormented the rest of the men's basketball teams in the MEAC. The Aggies dominated the MEAC Tournament in the 70's, 80's and part of the 90's. They won a record 15 MEAC Tournament titles in that span, including seven straight from 1982-88. A&T's seven straight conference tournament titles is still an NCAA record they share with the University of Kentucky. Starting in the late 90's, however, hard times fell upon the program. A&T went 15 straight seasons without a winning record, including a miserable 1-26 season in 2001-02.
Then there is Alexander. In 16 years as S.C. State's head coach (1987-03), Alexander became the standard-bearer among MEAC coaches. He won MEAC titles in 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2003, while leading the Bulldogs to eight championship game appearances. After the 2002-03 season, he accepted the head coaching position at Tennessee State. Over six seasons at TSU, he did not come close to equaling the success he had in Orangeburg, S.C. He left the Tigers program in 2009.
In April, Alexander was hired to coach the A&T men's basketball program, which included five seniors who had not experienced too many successes in the postseason. A&T's five four-year seniors - Austin Witter, Adrian Powell, Lawrence Smith, R.J. Buck and DaMetrius Upchurch - had never advanced beyond the MEAC Tournament quarterfinals. In fact, they had only one tournament win going into the 2013 MEAC Tournament.
When North Carolina A&T defeated Delaware State 84-78 Friday night to advance to the MEAC Tournament championship game, the trio walked out of The Norfolk Scope Arena with remarkable synergy.
A&T fans know they're one step away from being back on top of the MEAC. Alexander is back to his winning ways in the MEAC, and the five seniors have put aside their past failures.
"This means so much to us," said Powell, who became the 28th player in school history to reach 1,000 career points after scoring 23 on Friday. "This is the farthest we've all been since we got here. We all put in the work this summer to put ourselves in this situation. We now just have to finish it up tomorrow."
Powell and his teammates secured the Aggies (18-16) first winning season in 15 years with the win. They will face Morgan State Saturday evening at 5. The game will be televised on live ESPNU. A&T is back in the championship game for the first time since 1997. They are looking for their first MEAC title since 1995. A Saturday win will also put the Aggies in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years.
They have the right coach to help end the drought. Saturday will mark the MEAC's 42nd title game. Alexander has been a part of almost half of those games. He reached the championship 10 times as an assistant coach at Howard, and Saturday will be his ninth appearance as a head coach. Alexander will enter Saturday's game with more MEAC Tournament wins than any other coach in history. He picked up his 30th tournament win on Saturday, passing Coppin State coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell.
"I felt like there were some things in my career I still had not accomplished," said Alexander, who is still looking for his first NCAA Tournament win. "I felt this was the perfect program to accomplish those things because they have a fan base that is hungry to win again. They know what winning feels like, so I felt like the support was here to return this program back to its winning tradition."