NORFOLK, Va. - North Carolina A&T is trying to put a halt to a few negative trends. On Wednesday, the Aggies were playing in their first quarterfinal game in three years. Their 55-42 quarterfinal win over N.C. Central at the Norfolk Scope Arena ended a four-game losing streak to the Eagles. It also put the Aggies in their first semifinal game in six years.
The Aggies (17-16) held the Eagles to just 23 percent shooting and will advance to play the winner of the No.3 Hampton/No. 6 Delaware State game at 8 p.m., Friday. Hampton and Delaware State play Thursday night at 6.
"This definitely means a lot to us," said Austin Witter, the MEAC's Defensive Player of the Year. Witter had three blocks on Wednesday and now has 98 on the season.
"We've never made it to the semifinals since I've been here," he continued. "The only success I remember having here was making it to the quarterfinals my freshman year, so this does mean a lot. We're trying to make history at A&T. Hopefully, we can do that."
There is a lot of history on the line for A&T. A win on Friday would secure the program's first winning season in 15 years. A win would also mark the Aggies first appearance in the conference championship game in 16 years. Despite owning more MEAC Tournament titles than any other team, the Aggies have not won one since 1995.
It is defense that has the Aggies talking about history this week. In two games in Norfolk, Va., opponents are shooting just 33 percent from the floor and 28 percent from 3-point range.
"They are a team that plays off of rhythm," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander about the Eagles offense. "You can't let them get into a rhythm offensively or you're going to be in trouble. Our game plan was to change defenses as much as possible."
The Aggies looked at the Eagles three all-conference performers - Jeremy Ingram, Ray Willis and Stanton Kidd - has the biggest offensive threats.
"There were times we were playing man and zone at the same time," Alexander said. "We wanted to zone Kidd and play man-to-man on Willis and Ingram."
It seemed to work out well. Ingram, Willis and Kidd were a combined 9-for-39 from the field. The Aggies also benefited from the Eagles poor free throw shooting. The Eagles (22-9) came into the game shooting a conference-best 74.5 percent from the line.
Despite the Eagles offensive woes, A&T only shot 37 percent. A Kidd free throw pulled the Eagles to within one, 36-35, with eight minutes to play. A&T then went inside to 6-foot-3 guard Lamont Middleton. Middleton used his size to score on a turnaround to give the Aggies a three-point lead. Another Eagles free throw made it a two-point game before Adrian Powell worked his way into the lane for a layup and a 40-36 lead. A Powell steal led to DaMetrius Upchurch gliding through the lane for a fastbreak dunk to put the Aggies ahead six with 5:26 to play.
For the third time in three straight trips to the line, the Eagles made one of two free throws. Middleton's answer was another aggressive move in the lane that gave the Aggies a 44-37 advantage with 3:45 remaining. The Eagles never got the lead below six again. A Bruce Beckford dunk with 55 seconds remaining gave A&T an 11-point lead and validation that they were headed to the semis.
Powell and Middleton had 13 apiece. The Eagles were led by Kidd's 13.
"Tonight's contest was a grind for both teams," said Alexander. "When you look at the shooting percentages, we shot 37 percent, they shot 23 percent. But 37 is better than 23, so we'll take it."
N.C. Central scored the first seven points of the game, but the Aggies responded by scoring the next 14. Witter hit a 3-pointer with 52 seconds remaining in the first half to give the Aggies an eight-point lead, but N.C. Central's Alfonzo Houston responded with a three of his own seconds later to send the Eagles in the locker room trailing 20-15 at the half.