GREENSBORO - The North Carolina A&T men's basketball team came into Saturday evening's game at home against Bethune-Cookman, desperately needing a win. With the goal being to finish in the Top-3 of the MEAC standings, the Aggies were stuck in the middle of the pack with only eight conference games remaining. And things didn't look good early.
The Aggies trailed the Wildcats by 11, 12 minutes into Saturday's game. A&T head coach Cy was in need of someone to meet the challenge. He found three. Lamont Middleton and Adrian Powell answered the call on offense, while Austin Witter provided the defensive spark to lead the Aggies to a 65-55 win over the Wildcats.
"We challenged [Lamont] to lead during a timeout," said Alexander. "He didn't necessarily have to do it just by scoring, he needed to put people in position to score, and he got the job done."
Middleton quickly got the Aggies back into the contest as he scored eight points in a four-minute span. Witter capped a 15-4 run with a layup, tying the game at 25 at the 2:29 mark. A layup from DaMetrius Upchurch and a free throw from Powell gave the Aggies a 28-25 lead at the half.
Middleton, Powell, and Witter then turned up the offense in the second half, as they combined for 15 points in a 23-10 spurt that essentially put the game out of reach. A&T scorched the nets after halftime, connecting on 11-of-17 shots from the field and 13-of-16 from the free throw line.
Middleton led all scorers with 17 points, while Powell finished with 13. Adrien Coleman and Javoris Bryant had 12 points apiece for the Wildcats (9-15, 4-5 MEAC). Witter, the reigning MEAC Defensive Player of the Week, provided most of the defensive highlights, as he blocked five shots and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, all on the defensive end.
"I was pleasantly surprised at what Austin gave us today," said Alexander. "He's missed practice all week due to a foot injury, and played well through the pain. We didn't expect him to be the defender that he is, but his play is a tribute to his heart and effort. He's accepted his role as a shot blocker and defensive stopper, and he's figured out that he can earn some recognition with his defense."
The game plan was to limit opportunities for the Wildcat guards, especially Kevin Dukes. Dukes came into the game with a reputation for punishing A&T. He had a combined 18 3-pointers in his three previous contests against the Aggies. On Saturday, Dukes finished with just nine points on 3-for-9 shooting from the field, and hit only 2 of 7 from beyond the arc. B-CU went 3-for-18 from 3-point range, a far cry from the 12 3-pointers made in the earlier contest.
"Bethune-Cookman came out with a lot of spunk and effort," Alexander said. "We had to come out of our matchup zone and go to a man-to-man, which wasn't effective (in the first game) in Daytona. But we executed very well."
It was the Aggies first win over the Wildcats in four tries, and keeps them in position to earn one of the three first-round byes in the MEAC Tournament. The Aggies (12-12, 5-4 MEAC) will look to get a streak going as they will take on Florida A&M in Corbett Sports Center on Monday night at 8 pm. After Florida A&M, the Aggies will have to play three difficult road games in a row.
It will start with what is surely to be an emotional return to S.C. State for Alexander on Feb. 16. Alexander won five MEAC Championships over a 16-year span in Orangeburg, S.C. The Aggies will then face the No. 3 team in the conference in Savannah State on Feb. 18, before playing the No. 2 team in the conference in archrival N.C. Central on Feb. 23.
"We've got to work on being consistent," said Alexander. "And part of our inconsistency is we've not been able to win more than two games in a row all season. "So we're not worried about getting three in a row right now. We're trying to win on Monday, so we can put ourselves in position to have an overall winning record before we go on the road, and we can be solidly somewhere in fourth or fifth place. That will put us in a position to keep climbing that mountain, so we can get in the top three."