NEWARK, N.J. - Cy Alexander was pleased with the way his North Carolina A&T men's basketball team played for 34 minutes Sunday afternoon at the Prudential Center against Big East school Seton Hall. The problem lies in the fact that college basketball is a 40-minute game.
Led by three different Seton Hall players who scored 20-plus points and 11 3-pointers, The Pirates defeated A&T 77-66. The Pirates (8-2) were aided by a 16-2 over the final six minutes of the first half that helped them take a 39-29 halftime lead. Before the run, the Aggies held a 27-23 as the they hit four 3-pointers early to match the hot shooting of Fuquan Edwin who had a game-high 26 points.
"I think we got soft mentally," Alexander said about the Pirates run. "We said, 'Hey, these shots are going in, so then we had a couple of people take some ill-advised shots. So when one guy takes one, then another guy takes one, and then all of sudden an epidemic breaks out. All those bad shots lead to runs like Seton Hall had.'"
Things didn't get much better for A&T the first two minutes of the second half. Edwin hit a runner in the lane to give the Pirates a 45-29 lead. But two minutes later, Edwin picked up fouls three and four within a few seconds of one another and had to go to the bench. With the hot-shooting Edwin on the bench, the Aggies began to chip away at the Pirates lead.
Senior forward Austin Witter's 3-pointer and jumper in the lane pulled the Aggies to within eight at 59-51 with 6:49 to play. An Edwin turnover gave the Aggies a chance to cut into the lead even further as Witter was fouled going to the basket on a fast break. But Witter was not able to connect on either free throw. The Pirates took advantage of the missed free throws as Brandon Mobley pushed the lead to 11 with a 3-pointer.
"We cannot, in the clutch, leave free throws on the free throw line," Alexander said. "But it's a process. When you're trying to take a new team that's made these same decisions for three years, it's hard to eliminate them in the time we've had them. But we've to get them to understand, if it's not a sure bet, don't bet on it. "
The Aggies cut the lead down to 64-57 on a Bruce Beckford bank shot with 4:39 to play. But after more than 10 minutes on the bench, Edwin returned to his shooting ways as he hit his fifth and final 3-pointer of the game to push the lead back to 10. Two Lamont Middleton free throws pulled the Aggies to within eight.
In need of a defensive stop, it appeared the Aggies had one when Seton Hall's Kyle Smith missed a three. But Mobley secured the offensive board to give the Pirates another possession. Aaron Cosby followed with another Pirates miss, but another offensive board from Mosley gave Seton Hall and third opportunity. Mobley earned his reward for the previous two offensive rebounds as his put back gave the Pirates a 69-59 lead with 3:24 remaining.
"Those two offensive rebounds were huge," said Alexander who started to recall two other games - Jacksonville State and N.C. Central - where the Aggies failed to grab key defensive boards that cost them games. "We stopped them twice, and they finally get a third time and score. I don't have any other words for it other than it was huge."
It left Alexander thinking about what could have been because the Aggies did cut the lead to six again, 69-63, with two minutes remaining. They could not get any closer as a breakaway dunk and a three kept the Pirates ahead comfortably in the final minutes.
"Our kids never quit. They kept going and I commended them for that," Alexander said. "We could have folded and that 16-point lead could have ballooned into a 30-point lead. Four weeks ago, we lost to Cincinnati by 50 points. Today, we lost to a Big East team by 11 points. That tells me we're getting better."
Jean Louisme led A&T with 14 points. The Pirates were also led by Mobley who had 23 points and 13 rebounds and Aaron Cosby's 22 points.
The Aggies return home to host Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. They will have nine days between games as they go on the road to play Texas Tech (Dec. 28) and CSU Bakersfield (Dec. 30) to close out the month. The Aggies will play Radford and Georgia Southern to open the New Year before entering full-fledge conference play on Jan. 12 at Bethune-Cookman.
"If we can play 40 minutes like we played 34 minutes, we got a chance to beat anyone left on our schedule," said Alexander.