NORFOLK, Va. (March 5, 2018) – Senior Davaris McGowens did not appreciate having to leave Norfolk, Va., last year after being eliminated in one game at the conference tournament. Therefore, he made sure the North Carolina A&T men’s basketball team stayed a few more days in the military city by hitting two free throws with 2.3 seconds remaining in the Monday night’s MEAC Basketball Championship Tournament play-in game to lead No.4 N.C. A&T to a 62-61 win over No. 13 Delaware State at Scope Arena.
“When I got fouled, I thought this is it. If I make these two free throws, we advance,” said McGowens who played on last year’s team that was eliminated by Maryland Eastern Shore in a play-in game. “Once I got on the line, I just locked in and knocked them down. I thought about last year. I didn't want to have that same feeling. I knew I had to get it done.”
The win advances the Aggies (19-13) to the quarterfinals of the MEAC tournament and will play Norfolk State 8 p.m., Thursday at Scope Arena. The last time the Aggies won a conference tournament was in 2013 when they won the tournament title.
“We survived tonight,” said N.C. A&T coach Jay Joyner, who was presented his MEAC coach of the year plaque before the game. “This time of the year it’s about advancing, and that’s what we did tonight. Plain and simple.”
Delaware State center Simon Okolue, who was a problem for N.C. A&T all game, put the Aggies in critical condition with a spin and dunk off a pass from Pinky Wiley. The slam gave the Hornets a 61-59 lead with 66 seconds to play. Things got even scarier for Aggie nation as junior Kwei Lartey missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession.
But fifth-year forward Denzel Keyes grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled. The Aggies, who shot just 14-for-27 from the free throw line on Monday, saw Keyes hit one of two free throws to put the Aggies down one with 40 seconds remaining. With a 10-second differential between the game clock and the shot clock, the Aggies decided not to foul. The strategy worked.
N.C. A&T’s defense forced Kavon Waller to take a tough 3-point shot that Keyes rebounded. Keyes made an innocent pass over to freshman point guard Kameron Langley after his board. Langley took that pass and went deep to McGowens as he fired an 80-footer down the floor. McGowens, a former football player, went up to make the catch but was bumped by Waller. The foul sent McGowens to the line for his game winners.
“I was already in front of the guy who was playing me, so Kam and I just looked at each other and I gave him the signal to throw it. He delivered a pretty good pass,” said McGowens.
An interesting play ended the game. After a Hornets timeout, Waller tried to throw a length-of-the-court pass, hoping one of his teammates would come down with the pass and shoot for the game-winner. Waller’s Hail Mary caused a mad scramble in the air. As players tried to come down with the ball, a referee’s whistle blew inadvertently. The Aggies were given the ball and subsequently ran out the clock to end the game.
“I thought our energy level wasn't where it needed to be and it hurt us,” said Joyner. “But give these young men credit, they fought back. They have a way of just keep plugging away when they get behind. I think that is because they stay together and believe in each other. I feel like we got the bad game out of our system. We made some mistakes that we obviously can't continue to make if expect to win the tournament.”
N.C. A&T trailed 21-8 over the first 10 minutes of the game. But Okolue, who had 20 points on 10-for-12 shooting Monday, had to go to the bench with two fouls in the first half. From that point, the Aggies outscored the Hornets 21-7 to take a 29-28 lead with 3.6 seconds remaining in the half. A steal and dunk by Saleick Edwards gave the Hornets a 30-29 halftime lead, however.
The Aggies led by as many as six in the second half, but two Wiley free throws gave the Hornets a 57-55 lead with 1:15 remaining in regulation. But Keyes hit a turnaround jumper in the lane with 54 seconds remaining to tie the game and send it into overtime tied at 57.
The Aggies frontcourt was pivotal in the win. Junior Femi Olujobi scored 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting. Keyes had eight points and 12 rebounds and McGowens finished with 14 points and hit all four of his free throw attempts.
“I feel like our front court has been strong all year. We have three players who have at some point in the season, dominated the game. As a whole, we need to be very efficient because we are the spark for this team. Whether it's me, Denzel or Davaris, we have to roll with the hot hand and feed off each other.”