CHARLOTTE – The Charlotte 49ers took advantage of a three-minute stretch where the North Carolina A&T men’s basketball team didn’t play well and turned it into an 88-72 win at Halton Arena Saturday night.
Until that moment in the game, the Aggies (3-11) played a very good Charlotte 49ers team out of Conference USA to a draw.
“I thought we played about 30 minutes of fairly decent basketball,” said North Carolina A&T head coach Cy Alexander. “But for 10 minutes we didn’t play so well. We’ve got to figure out a way to make (our players) play the game for 40 minutes and not 30. That’s why our record is what it is against this level of competition.”
Marcus Bryan had to hit one of two free throws with a one-tenths of a second left to get the 49ers (9-4) even with the Aggies at the half, 40-40.
The two teams exchanged the lead four times in the second half. The Aggies last lead of the game came on two Bruce Beckford free throws that gave A&T a 47-46 lead with 15:25 remaining. Terrence Williams gave the 49ers lead back with a three from the top of the key. Forty-niners power forward Willie Clayton scored the next two baskets to stretch the lead to six, 53-47. Richaud Pack, who led four Aggies in double figures with 18, kept A&T in the game by hitting two consecutive layups in between another Clayton layup to keep the 49ers in the lead, 55-51, with 12 minutes remaining.
“I thought the effort was there,” said Alexander. “I thought we executed. We missed some shots that hopefully down the line we’ll make. We shot 80 percent from the free throw line, and we only had 11 turnovers. UNC Charlotte is a pretty good basketball team. They have shooters and they have size.”
The Niners used both during the tough three-minute stretch for A&T. A&T turnovers also played a role. Charlotte turned an A&T turnover near midcourt into a transition layup by Shawn Lester. On the Aggies ensuing possession, they turned it over again which led Lester to spot up in the corner for a transition three to give the 49ers a 60-51 lead. A Jerome Simmons miss led to another transition three as Daniel Ingram spotted up in the left corner.
The Niners capped off the run by forcing another turnover that turned into a Lester Dunk for a 65-51 lead with 9:22 to play.
“That’s the mental toughness I’ve been trying to get our guys to understand,” said Alexander. “It’s 40 minutes. Just because you played well 25 minutes doesn’t mean you win the game. We broke down. I had to call two timeouts in a row because we didn’t get back and we gave up layups and threes. One minute we’re down one or two and the next thing I know we’re down nine or 10.”
Pack did hit a three to cut the 49ers lead to 65-57 with 8:23 to play. It was as close as the Aggies got the rest of the night. Pierria Henry led four 49ers in double figures with 23 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals and two blocks. Lester came off the bench to score 13, while Clayton scored 13 points and had eight rebounds and Mike Thorne, Jr., had 12 points and seven rebounds.
The Aggies took solace in the fact that key players shot the ball well Saturday night. Senior point guard Jeremy Underwood was 3-for-4 from 3-point range for 13 points. Middleton hit all seven of his free throws for 17 points and four assists and sophomore forward Bruce Beckford had 14 points.
The Aggies open conference play Saturday, January 11 when they travel to Daytona Beach, Fla., to face Bethune-Cookman at 4 p.m. Two days later they will play in Tallahassee, Fla., against Florida A&M at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s now Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference time, where the games count,” said Alexander.