NORFOLK, Va. -It took the North Carolina A&T men's basketball team two months before they could win two straight. After that point, the Aggies won two straight five times, but could never get on a three-game winning streak. Each time, agony and frustration would sweep across the face of first-year A&T head coach Cy Alexander.
Well coach, how about four straight? That's the number of consecutive games the Aggies won to claim the 2013 MEAC Basketball Tournament Championship on Saturday. Win No. 4 came at the expense of Morgan State in a 57-54 victory at The Norfolk Scope Arena. Tournament MVP Adrian Powell had 14 points and two rebounds and hit two key free throws in the clutch. All-tournament performer Lamont Middleton added 13. Conference defensive player of the year Austin Witter finished with 11 points, nine rebounds and five blocks, including a big swat in the final two minutes of the contest.
"After we would get those two wins, we would find a way to lose," said Alexander. "We would then have to have these coming to Jesus meetings. The beauty of it all is they hung in there with me, and I hung in there with them. We never stopped believing in each other and that's why they can now call themselves champions."
A&T will now await its destination for next week. Many experts believe the Aggies will play in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday in one of the play-in games. To Alexander and the Aggie family, all of that will sort itself out over time. The only thing that is in important now, is that North Carolina A&T basketball is back at the top of the MEAC after an 18-year drought without a championship. The Aggies are 19-16, the most wins they have had since 1987-88 season, when they went 26-3 and won the MEAC title.
The MEAC championship marks Alexander's sixth as a head coach and his first with A&T. A&T now has 16 titles, more than any other school in the MEAC. Next week will mark the Aggies' 10th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and the first since 1995.
"(Associate head coach Jay Joyner) always talk to us about making history," said Middleton. "One of the first conversations he had with us was about making history. That really stayed with us throughout the season."
There was no one more fitting to get the history started than Witter, who had an historic season blocking shots for A&T. Morgan State's Anthony Hubbard went down the lane with ease and put up what appeared to be a layup that would tie the game at 53 with two minutes to play. But Witter, the Aggies all-time single-season blocked shots leader, spotted him in time, turned his body, timed his jump and tossed Hubbard's shot into the hands of Aggies guard Jeremy Underwood.
Underwood turned the block into a transition basket as he found freshman Bruce Beckford underneath the basket for a layup and a 55-51 lead with 1:45 to play. What made the block even bigger is that Blake Bozeman answered with a 3-pointer 15 seconds later. When Powell missed his jumper, it gave the Bears a chance to take the lead. But Hubbard missed another layup and the ball ended up in the hands of Powell.
At times this season, Powell has struggled from the free throw line. But Powell has been superb in four games in Norfolk.
"All we had to do to win the game was hit free throws," said Alexander, won his MEAC-leading 31st MEAC Tournament game on Saturday. "A young man I have all the confidence in the world in got fouled. That young man is sitting to my right. He's Adrian Powell. He stepped up and knocked them down like I knew he would."
Not only did Powell hit the two free throws to put A&T ahead 57-54 with 23.2 seconds left. But he also blocked first-team All-MEAC selection DeWayne Jackson's 3-point attempt to tie the game in the final seconds.
"I knew they were going to Jackson," said Powell. "I saw him coming off of a curl, and I just timed it right and blocked his shot."
Powell finished the four-game affair averaging 15.3 points and 5.0 rebounds.
"There were times this year when no one believed in us but us," said Powell. "Coach just kept telling us to stay together and keep believing in one another. We knew eventually it would work out for us if we kept working hard."
Now the Aggies must get to work on trying to win five straight. The Aggies will celebrate on Sunday with a Selection Show Party at the Student Union at 5:30 p.m. But once they get their travel plans, it's back to practice on Monday in anticipation of playing on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday.
"If you play college basketball, there is nothing like playing in the NCAA Tournament - win, lose or draw," said Alexander, who will be making his sixth appearance in the tourney.