COLUMBIA, S.C. (March 16, 2018) – Forget all the labels that try to put limitations on what the North Carolina A&T women’s basketball team can accomplish. Historically black college and university. Underdog. Lower resource institution. No. 15 seed.
Head coach Tarrell Robinson wanted everyone gathered at Colonial Life Arena Friday night that he came inside the building to play in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament with a legitimate Division I program.
And that Division I program that plays on the east side of Greensboro, N.C., forced the defending national champions to use a little more perspiration than expected. In the end, the Aggies finally succumbed to the second-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks out of the Columbia Region, 63-52. The Gamecocks will advance to face the Virginia Cavaliers 9 p.m., Sunday in a second-round game at Colonial Life Arena.
“We are an HBCU by tradition,” said Robinson when asked about what it meant for an HBCU to play competitively against a program like South Carolina. “We’re a Division I program. We prepare no different than the Gamecocks, so I don’t get caught up in that. Our tradition is great, but we go about playing and preparing for basketball no different than anybody else. I’m just hoping our young women will take this and believe more in our culture and the things we pride ourselves in every day.”
N.C. A&T (23-9) prides themselves on being a defensive-minded team that can turn teams over to create offense and rebound the basketball on the offensive end to create more offense. Despite the success, the Aggies have had using those facets of the game, they found themselves trailing the Gamecocks by as many as 20 in the second half and they were down 16 a minute into the fourth quarter.
But the Aggies countered by making the Gamecocks (27-6) speed up faster than they wanted and made the SC bigs put the ball on the floor including three-time national player of the year A’ja Wilson. Wilson finished with 19 points, 16 rebounds, and five blocks but she also had five turnovers because the Aggies stole the ball several times with her handling the ball.
SC had 19 turnovers for the game as the Aggies outscored the Gamecocks, like they have the vast majority of their opponents this season, in points off turnovers (22-12). To complement all that, senior Kala Green got hot from 3-point range. After hitting six 3-pointers on December 14 against Georgia, an SEC member like the Gamecocks, Green made five against SC to finish with a game-high 21 points. In three games against SEC teams Auburn, Georgia and SC, Green averaged 19.0 points, hit all eight of her free throw attempts and shot 51.4 percent (18-for-35) from the floor and 13-for-24 (.542) from 3-point range.
“We weren't being disciplined on defense and that's something that we pride ourselves on, so we needed to pick it up on defense,” said Green. “The more pressure that we put on them, they would turn the ball over or have mishaps happen on offense and it led to our transition which is something that is key to us. We needed to stick to our principles because what we do is good enough.”
Green hit back-to-back threes and then got out in transition and took a pass from sophomore point guard
Doniyah Cliney scored inside for the Gamecocks lead by to double figures before took advantage of an Alexus Lessears rebound and pulled up and connected on another 3-pointer to put the Aggies within seven at 58-51 with 3:22 remaining. Wilson answered for the Gamecocks with a spin move and reverse layup. The Aggies got the lead back down to eight on one of two free throws from Lessears and had a chance to get even closer, but sophomore Le’on Hill could not connect.
“We got it down to a seven-point lead but we didn’t execute and value the basketball. When you’re playing a team like this, you have to become more focused and more engaged. You can’t get caught up in the moment and sometimes that happens with young people.”
The Aggies outscored the Gamecocks 41-37 over the final
“I tried to let everyone know that they were going to be nervous,” said Green, who was playing in her second NCAA tournament game. “You have to accept the fact that you're nervous to play through that. They were nervous and didn't want to admit it. They got on the court and it was like whoa.”
Green and fellow senior Quenswayla Story will go down as the only two players in program history to win two MEAC tournament championships in their respective careers. In addition to losing Green and Story, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season champs will also lose graduate forward Jade Scaife.
But Robinson and his staff expect sophomores Foy,
“Yesterday it was more of a David and Goliath attitude from everyone,” said Robinson. “People were insinuating we were not going to put up a fight and the game was going to be over fast. That and itself, the score and itself, is going to really set a fire to these young women.”