EAST GREENSBORO – North Carolina A&T has become unbeatable at home when they face Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opponents.
Now, head coach Jay Joyner and his N.C. A&T men’s basketball team is trying to become unbeatable at the Norfolk Scope Arena next week. The Aggies wrapped up the 2018-19 regular season on Thursday with a convincing 74-52 win over their chief rival, N.C. Central at Corbett Sports Center. It was the Aggies 17th straight win at home against a MEAC opponent dating back to March 2, 2017 when the Aggies started the streak against NCCU in a memorable upset of the Eagles.
The Aggies (18-12, 13-3 MEAC) finished the season undefeated at home against MEAC competition for the second straight season. It is now on to the 2019 MEAC Basketball Championship Tournament for the second-seeded Aggies where they will play their quarterfinal game 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 13 at the Scope against the winner of the No. 7 versus No. 10 game between Coppin State and Morgan State.
N.C. A&T beat each Baltimore school once this season, both games were at Corbett.
“For us to close out like this in our last official home game of the season is huge,” said Joyner who is 24-8 in the MEAC over the last two seasons. “But heading into the tournament it’s a brand new season. Everybody’s record is 0-0 so we’ve got to get the job done.”
N.C. A&T, who last won a MEAC title in 2013, will go into the tournament on a four-game winning streak. Their 13 conference wins are the most they have had since going 16-0 during the 1987-88 MEAC regular-season. If they win the tournament, the Aggies will have back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons.
“Eighteen wins is a great accomplishment,” said Joyner. “But we still have a lot of basketball left to play. But I think the guys have a lot of confidence going into The Scope.”
The Aggies built a little more confidence on Thursday as fifth-year guard Amari Hamilton led the Aggies with 19 points off the bench on four made 3-pointers. Sophomore Kameron Langley tied a career high with 17 points to go along with four assists putting him 16 assists shy of the Aggies single-season record heading into the tournament.
Seniors Qua Copeland and Milik Gantz had 12 points apiece with Gantz going 6-for-7 from the floor. As a team, the Aggies shot 64 percent from the floor in the second half and 50 percent from the floor for the game. They head into Norfolk as the best shooting team in the conference.
They showed off their shot-making ability five minutes into the second half. That is when Copeland decided to quickly pull up for a shot from the top of the key. He netted the jumper to give the Aggies a 44-38 lead. Freshman Tyrone Lyons then drove baseline for a reverse layup to push the lead up to eight. Langley forced an NCCU timeout when he dribbled his way into the lane and scored on a difficult layup to put the Aggies ahead 48-38 with 11:46 to play.
Jibri Blount ended the Aggies 7-0 run with an easy layup in the paint, but that was before Hamilton got hot from the outside. Hamilton took a pass from Lyons in the post and knocked down a 3-pointer for a 51-40 Aggies lead.
A minute later, Hamilton hit another three to give the Aggies a 55-43 lead with 9:24 remaining in the game. Hamilton then ignited a 9-2 run with another 3-pointer. Gantz capped the run by racing down the floor and scoring on a finger-roll layup to give the Aggies a 64-45 lead with 6:18 remaining on the clock. The Aggies led by as many as 24 in the second half. N.C. A&T jumped out to an 8-1 lead on Thursday before the Eagles (15-15, 10-6 MEAC) settled in and took a 21-20 lead on a Douglas Zacarry 3-pointer. Hamilton answered by scoring on a fastbreak layup to give the Aggies the lead back with 6:26 remaining in the first half.
The Eagles never led again.
“We’re going into the tournament with depth. We’re 13-deep,” said Joyner who improved to 6-2 against NCCU as the Aggies head coach. “All year long whoever I called on responded. I give these young men a lot of credit. It’s not easy winning 18 games but somehow some way we did it. We don’t have one person averaging double figures. That is evidence to the fact that we believe in a team-first concept.”
Nine Aggies average between 4.0 and 9.1 points per game. The balanced Aggies may have to see the Eagles again on Friday because the two longtime rivals are in the same bracket with the Eagles coming in as the No. 3 seed.
Zacarry Davis led the Eagles (15-15, 10-6 MEAC) with 10 points and 15 rebounds.