NORFOLK, Va. - Senior North Carolina A&T men's basketball player Austin Witter has been practicing in Corbett Sports Center for four years. Every time he looked up in the rafters he saw the years marking A&T's 15 MEAC championships. But he noticed something. For some reason those years didn't extend into this millennium
"It's great to look up there and see all the history," he said. "It's great to look up there and see all the championships. But then it just stops. There is nothing that comes after 1995. I've always wanted to change that. Now, they can put our year up there for everyone to see."
A&T defeated Morgan State 57-54 at The Norfolk Scope, Saturday night to collect the school's 16th MEAC title, more than any other school in the conference's history. Witter was right; the last title came in 1995.
Nineteen ninety-five? A year when there was no Facebook, Instagram or You Tube. Tweet was something the 'Rockin Robin' did in the Jackson 5 song. There were no black presidents, not even in the movies. And most of the members of the 2013 MEAC championship team were barely in grade school, if they were in grade school at all.
It seemed unfathomable to Witter and others that a program of A&T's mystique and prestige, at one point being named the 62nd best program in NCAA history by Street & Smith magazine, would go so long without a championship. Truth be told, a lot of doubters didn't believe a championship was on its way this season.
There were so many roller coaster moments throughout the season. A&T never won more than two straight games before the MEAC tourney. They beat one of the best mid-majors in the country in Eastern Kentucky, but they lost to the worst team in the MEAC, S.C. State. They sustained two heartbreaking four-point losses to their archrival and nemesis N.C. Central, the latter of those two losses coming in Durham on Feb. 23 when the Aggies shot a disappointing 6-for-19 from the free throw line.
Alexander acknowledges that while the loss to his former employer, S.C. State, was one of the toughest losses of his 23-year coaching career. The game at N.C. Central transformed his team.
"I think no one in our program ever stopped believing regardless of all the ups and downs," he said. "I think the game that was probably the turning point was Central because we actually outplayed them even though we didn't win. Central was the second-best team in our league. We felt if we could play with them, we could play with anyone. I'm proud of what we have been able to accomplish because my players never stop playing and we never stopped coaching."
They did bounce back to beat 2011-12 MEAC regular-season champion Savannah State on national television just before tournament.
"Nobody believed in us," said senior Adrian Powell, who won tournament MVP honors on Saturday. "There were times where are our own students and fans were tough on us. But coach told us it was important that everyone in our locker room stay together and stay committed. There are times when you have to believe in yourself when no one else does."
The Aggies entered the tournament as the No. 7 seed out of 13 teams. They also entered the tournament with a losing record at 15-16. They opened the tournament with a win over 10th-seeded Florida A&M, their third win over the Rattlers this season. Then strange things began to happen. Top-seeded Norfolk State, a team that went 16-0 in the conference during the regular season, was eliminated by Bethune-Cookman on Wednesday. Hours later, the Aggies avenged those two earlier losses to N.C. Central by eliminating the Eagles 55-42.
The next day, third-seeded Hampton made it a clean sweep by being eliminated by Delaware State. By Thursday's end, all three teams that received a first-round bye were gone. The Aggies then took care of Delaware State in the semis before their conquest over Morgan State. A&T had losses to N.C. Central, Delaware State and Morgan State during the regular season.
In avenging all of those losses, the Aggies were not the only ones to end a drought. After spending six seasons in the Ohio Valley Conference at Tennessee State, Alexander picked up his first MEAC championship in 10 years. He now has a league best 31 MEAC Tournament wins. He became the third Aggies head coach to win the MEAC title in his first year in Aggieland, joining Jeff Capel (1994) and Roy Thomas (1995).
"(Associate head coach Jay Joyner) always talk to us about making history," said Aggies guard Lamont Middleton. "One of the first conversations he had with us was about making history. That really stayed with us throughout the season. We really worked hard to make history."
It is now up to the facilities people at A&T to start working hard. It's time for them to put up the year 2013 in the rafters for Mr. Witter and the rest of Aggie Nation. Two-thousand thirteen...as in 2013 MEAC Champs!