MEAC Final: N.C. A&T back in the dance
NORFOLK, Va. — Early in the season, having tried everything he could think of to help solve his team’s free-throw shooting woes, Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman finally decided to ignore it, and focus instead on defense.
The strategy worked, to a great degree, leading to an eight-game winning streak that brought the Bears to the brink of their third tournament championship in the past five seasons.
But then their weakness came to the forefront, and cost them dearly; the Bears missed 12 of 20 free throws Saturday, including eight of 14 in the second half, and lost 57-54 to North Carolina A&T in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship.
“It’s not all that surprising that it came back to bite us,” Bozeman said.
The Bears (17-15), who went down three on two free throws by Adrian Powell for the Aggies with 23.4 seconds left, had a chance to tie it and the ball in the right hands, but Powell blocked DeWayne Jackson’s 3-point shot and, after a scramble, one last desperate heave by Jackson in traffic never had a chance.
Jackson, who led the Bears with 20 points, was emotional after his final college game.
“All I can say is I tried my best,” he said after a long pause.
Powell led the Aggies (19-16) with 14 points and Lamont Middleton had 13 — all in the second half — to boost A&T into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995. The Bears were playing in the championship game for the fifth time in Bozeman’s seven years as coach, but came up short of their third title.
The loss was the first in nine games for Morgan State.
The game was close throughout the second half, and an 8-3 run by the Aggies gave them a 51-45 lead with 6:44 to play. Austin Witter, who scored 11, banked in a shot from just inside the 3-point line to start the run and finished it with a free throw, giving the Aggies their biggest lead of the half.
Justin Black’s second field goal of the game pulled the Bears within four, but he was fouled and failed to convert the three-point play. When the Bears’ Anthony Hubbard was fouled after a turnover by the Aggies, he missed both free throws, part of the Bears’ 6-for-14 performance at the line in the half.
Middleton’s 17-footer boosted the Aggies’ lead back to six before two free throws by Jackson and Hubbard’s driving basket pulled Morgan State back to 53-51 with just 3:59 remaining.
Middleton’s missed free throw started a string of failed chances for both teams, and when the Aggies’ Bruce Beckford broke the scoring drought with an inside basket for a 55-51 lead with 1:43 to go.
Blake Bozeman, son of Morgan State coach, quickly answered with a 3-pointer, his only field goal of the game, to make it a one-point game again, setting up the finish.
Both teams took turns having the upper hand in the first half, with the Aggies getting eight points from Powell in a 15-4 run that gave them a 21-17 lead, and the Bears closing the half on 9-4 burst.