DURHAM - It is not hard to explain why North Carolina A&T lost for the fifth time in six tries against its chief rival. The Aggies missed a lot of free throws.
The Aggies were 6-for-19 at the free throw line in a 51-47 loss to N.C. Central in front of a sellout crowd at McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium on Saturday.
"I can sit here and get all philosophical about it, but the bottom line is they shot 90 percent from the free throw line, and we shot 31 percent," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander.
The Eagles (19-8, 12-1 MEAC) went 19-for-21 at the foul line.
What was even more concerning for the first-year A&T head coach who saw his team slip to 13-15 overall and 6-7 in the MEAC, was who missed the free throws.
Adrian Powell, the Aggies second-leading scorer and one of the best 3-point shooters in the conference, went 1-for-6. Lamont Middleton, who came into the game ranked 13th in the conference in free throw shooting at 74.8 percent , went 4-for-11. Jeremy Underwood, the conference's fifth-best free throw shooter, only went to the line twice. But one of his misses came during a crucial point in the ball game.
"If it had of been guys who normally struggle at the free throw line, you could almost understand it," said Alexander. "But these are people I want at the line."
A&T led by as many as 12 in the first half, 25-13. But the Eagles went on a 5-0 run to end the half and went into the locker room trailing 30-27.
The frustration started to set in midway through the second half with the Aggies trailing 45-38. Middleton hit one of two free throws to draw the Aggies to within six. Two minutes later, he went one of two from the line again to make it a 45-40 game with 7:13 to play. Both teams then went the next three minutes without a point until freshman center Bruce Beckford scored around the basket to move the Aggies to within three.
A steal by Beckford led to a Middleton score to complete what was a seven-minute 6-0 run that cut the Eagles lead to one, 45-44 with 3:01 to play.
A&T had several opportunities to recapture a lead it held for the majority of the first 33 minutes of the game, but the Aggies missed two more free throws in a two-minute span, and the Eagles scored their first points since the 10:11 mark when Emanuel Chapman drove through the lane and scored over two Aggies to make it a 47-44 game with 1:18 to play.
"The thing about it is, I think my young men played hard," said Alexander. "I thought we executed our defensive game plan to perfection. They only scored 51 on us. But you don't win when you shoot 31 percent from the free throw line."
Even with a minute remaining, A&T's free throw nightmares still were not finished. Middleton went 1-for-2 from the line to cut the lead two. Beckford's steal helped the Aggies regain possession. A foul by the Eagles Jeremy Ingram put Middleton back at the line with 44 seconds remaining. He missed both as 3,230 fans screamed at him to do so.
"If you're a Division I basketball player who wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then you have to learn how to play in tough atmospheres. You can't fold," said Alexander.
After two Ray Willis free throws gave the Eagles a 49-45 lead with 19 seconds remaining, Adrian Powell followed his own 3-point miss with a layup with two seconds remaining. But Ingram sealed the win with two more Eagle free throws.
Stanton Kidd and Ingram led the Eagles with 14 points apiece. Powell and Beckford had 10 apiece for A&T who will take a week off before playing at home against S.C. State on March 2 at 4 p.m. It will be Senior Night for A&T's seven seniors - Powell, Jean Louisme, Austin Witter, Lawrence Smith, R.J. Buck, Dominique Behohn-Tolly and DaMetrius Upchurch.
"We've got guys who have been here and done that," said Alexander, who also has two juniors on the team. "So we can't harp on it because so much of it is psychological. But I do have to address it to the media and to my team."
"How can it be remedy? "Get in the gym and shoot," said Alexander.