It’s amazing what six days of rest and practice time will do for you.
N.C. Central, less than one week after losing to lowly N.C. A&T, on Wednesday night played like the top-seeded team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Attacking from the start, the Eagles defeated Bethune-Cookman 95-60 in the MEAC tournament at the Norfolk Scope Arena.
“Obviously a great effort on our part,” N.C. Central basketball coach LeVelle Moton said. “The last week didn’t end as planned. Sometimes you have to taste your own blood, get back in the lab and get back and prepare. I thought our preparation from the week of practice really carried over to the game.”
All five starters scored in double-digits, as N.C. Central got back in the win column after dropping two in a row to end the regular season. Dajuan Graf led the Eagles with a game-high 18 points. Patrick Cole finished two assists shy of his second-career double double, ending the night with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Rashaun Madison rediscovered his shooting touch, connecting on five 3-pointers for 15 points, while big men Del’Vin Dickeron (13) and Kyle Benton (10) dominated inside.
The past six days weren’t exactly a grind, but it was a time for a rest and to get back to basics.
“We just got back to our fundamentals,” Graf said. “We were anxious to play after that last game. I think we just came out and did a good job playing together.”
The Eagles had 20 assists on 34 made field goals and outrebounded the Wildcats 41-29. Defensively they held the Wildcats to a 35 percent shooting night and forced 15 turnovers that resulted in 17 points for the regular-season champions.
N.C. Central looked as dominant as it has all season during an 18-3 run that broke the game open in the first half. That helped build a 15-point lead behind the guard play from Cole and Graf, and strong work on the glass from Benton and Will Ransom.
The Eagles started the game on an old-fashioned three-point play from Dickerson, the first of two in the half. N.C. Central, which had grown accustomed to hanging out around the 3-point line in back-to-back losses, attacked the rim early and often, scoring 32 of its 50 first-half points in the paint, including two rim-rattling dunks from Ransom. The Eagles finished with 44 points in the paint, at times turning the game into a layup line drill with 25 fastbreak points. Defensively, N.C. Central looked once again like the best defensive team in the league, at one point holding the Wildcats scoreless on six consecutive possessions to end the first half, as the Eagles led by 18 at the break.
During their two-game slide, Moton said his team never lost confidence, they just got away from being who they are.
“We were more concerned with the team personnel instead of us doing what we do,” Moton said. “So the week to prepare was really good for us. These guys came out and executed. As our guards go, we’re pretty good.”
In the first half everything went right. Madison hit his first two 3-point attempts in the first half. He also hit his first two attempts of the second half, finally seeing the ball go through the net in his home town.
“It felt great to see the ball go through the hole, finally,” Madison said. “I’ve been struggling the last two games and like I said, when my family is here it’s like my good-luck charm.”
The 3-pointers falling became contagious. Late in the fourth quarter Ron Trapps (nine points) knocked down consecutive triples, ballooning the Eagles’ lead to 29.
“I think we get an energy boost when somebody hits a shot,” Graf said. “Whether it’s Rashaun, or if it’s Kyle or Pat, I think we just all feed off each other and play.”
N.C. Central improved to 8-0 when shooting better than 50 percent from the field. The Eagles shot a scorching 54 percent from the field against the Wildcats.
The Eagles will play the winner of the Hampton-Maryland-Eastern Shore game at 6 p.m. Friday in the tournament semifinals.