NORFOLK, Va. (March 9, 2018) – North Carolina A&T men’s basketball wanted to so badly finish the job of accomplishing a feat most thought would be impossible to do when the 2017-18 season started in November. Hampton, however, played well enough to prevent the Aggies from winning the 2018 MEAC Basketball Championship Tournament. The Pirates defeated the Aggies 96-86 in the tournament semifinals at Scope Arena to advance to play N.C. Central in the championship game scheduled for 1 p.m., Saturday at the Scope.
N.C. A&T’s run to the semifinals is not bad for a team that was picked to finish last in the MEAC. Instead the Aggies are 20-14 overall and finished the regular-season with an 11-5 mark in the league, good enough for a fourth-place tie.
The 17th 20-win season in school history also earned the Aggies their first postseason appearance in five years. The Aggies have accepted an invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament and will play the Liberty Flames (20-14, 9-9 Big South) in Lynchburg, Va., on Monday, March 12. A game time has not been determined. The Flames in the finals of their championship tournament to Radford on a buzzer-beater.
Radford and Presbyterian College were N.C. A&T’s only Big South opponents this season. The Aggies lost at PC on a buzzer-beater, 73-70, on Dec. 2. They lost to Radford 66-60 in the Continental Tire Classic in Las Vegas in December. The CIT is in its 10th year of existence. A 10-member selection committee consisting of Division I athletics directors, select the 32-team field. The official field will be announced Sunday, March 11. The Aggies will be making their first appearance.
N.C. A&T wanted to make their first appearance in the MEAC tournament final in five years. But the Pirates shot 48.4 percent for the game and were 7-for-11 (63.6) from 3-point range. The Aggies did not play bad offensively. They shot 43.5 percent and knocked down 8 of their 22 3-point attempts. Junior center Femi Olujobi scored 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, marking the first time this season he has scored 20 or more against a MEAC foe. Junior guard Aaren Edmead had his second 20-point game of the season, scoring 20 points on 4-for-8 shooting from 3-point range.
Fifth-year forward Denzel Keyes recorded his fifth career double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds and freshman point guard Kameron Langley posted 15 points and seven assists.
But the Aggies could not get key stops on a consistent basis when they needed them. When they did get those stops, a turnover, missed shot or missed layup prevented the Aggies from capitalizing. N.C. A&T finished with 17 turnovers Friday night. In beating Hampton in Greensboro on Feb. 3, the Aggies only had eight turnovers.
“I thought we had way too many turnovers last night,” said N.C. A&T coach Jay Joyner, referring to the 19 turnovers the Aggies had in their quarterfinal win over Norfolk State. “Unfortunately, we repeated that performance tonight. That’s almost 20 empty possessions where we’re not even getting shot attempts. That seems to be our story right now.”
It also didn’t help the Aggies that their leading scorer in conference play, senior Davaris McGowens only played 16 minutes because of foul trouble. The Aggies trailed by 49-37 at the half and an Akim Mitchell 3-pointer to open the second put N.C. A&T behind by 15. In fact, N.C. A&T trailed by double figures over the first 7 ½ minutes of the second half until Olujobi put back a Edmead miss to bring the Aggies to within eight at 60-52.
Despite repeated attempts to stay within striking distance, the Aggies had to expend way too much energy throughout the second half trying to keep their deficit under 10. The Aggies got to within seven at the 8:26 mark on an Edmead 3-pointer, but the Pirates answered with a 3-pointer. With six minutes to play, another Edmead three cut the deficit to seven, but again the Pirates responded with a three of their own. Keyes cut Hampton’s lead to six with two free throws with 4 ½ minutes left, but the Aggies squandered an opportunity to get closer by turning the ball over.
Keyes hit two more free throws at 3:21 mark to get the Aggies to within six at 77-71. But Hampton’s Kalin Fisher drove baseline to score and made one of two free throws after an Aggies turnover to push the lead back to nine. After two Langley free throws, Malique Trent-Street hit a crushing jumper to put the Aggies back down nine with 2:13 to play. After a missed three from N.C. A&T, Trent-Street hit two free throws to put the Pirates ahead by double figures again.
“Possession after possession we failed to play defense. I think we ran out of gas,” said Joyner. “In a loser go home type of game, we gave up way too many points. Hampton was Hampton. They score a lot of points. We didn’t take care of the basketball the way we did at home when we beat them, and we didn’t defend the way we needed to defend.”
Trent-Street led Hampton with 25 points.
“I think we proved a lot of people wrong. We set out to rebuild the winning culture at A&T, and I felt that we did that,” said Olujobi. “We have to keep building it and use this season as a stepping stone.”