N.C. Central cut the nets down on Saturday for the second time. But this time it meant a little bit more.
NCCU beat Norfolk State 67-59 on Saturday afternoon at Norfolk’s Scope Arena to bring home the Mid-East Athletic Conference Tournament title and secure its second-ever trip to the NCAA Division I tournament.
After trailing 46-43 early in the second half, NCCU went on a 19-0 run and held NSU scoreless for more than 10 minutes to effectively put the game away.
The teams played fairly even statistically in the first half, as NSU held a 38-35 lead and both teams shot better than 42 percent. But the partisan crowd on hand at the Scope, located fairly close to NSU’s campus, made every basket feel like a punch landed in a title bout.
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Speaking of fights, NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said he thought his team came out on the losing end of the battle down low early on.
“The first half I just thought they kind of punked us,” Moton said, noting NSU’s 25-12 rebounding edge after the first 20 minutes. “I thought our ego was bruised a little bit, and I told the guys we just gotta respond. It’s not gonna be about X’s and O’s, it’s gonna be about one possession that separates this game.”
Continuing the fight analogy, Moton referred to the game as a heavyweight battle.
“When Rashaun Madison hit a 3, that put us up eight,” Moton said. “I thought it gave us a cushion. But I thought it also applied game pressure from then. From there, we just rode our seniors’ backs.”
Senior guard Patrick Cole was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after an 18-point, eight-rebound performance against NSU.
Moton said his team hadn’t earned the right to play in the NCAA tournament following regular season-ending losses to N.C. A&T and Savannah State, and said he regretted letting his team cut down the nets after clinching the regular-season title on Feb. 25 against Bethune-Cookman.
Ten days later, DeJuan Graf admitted those last two losses were a turning point for himself and his teammates.
“It definitely woke us up,” Graf, who scored 17 points. “After those two losses, we had to start back from the basics. When we went in practice, we just started doing our fundamentals again, back to the things that we were doing at the beginning of the season to help us get on a winning streak from the start, and we just built on that coming into the tournament.
Now that they’ve proven themselves NCAA tournament-worthy, the Eagles will wait to see who, where and when they will play next.
In its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2014, No. 14-seed NCCU played Iowa State.
“One of the Gumbel guys and Clark Kellogg and all them will say, in this region, North Carolina Central will play somebody,” Moton said, referring to sportscasters Bryant and Greg Gumbel and today’s Selection Sunday telecast from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on CBS. “And we’ll go from there. We’ll gameplan for whoever. We’ll respect whoever, but we’re going to win a basketball game. That’s who we are.”