Despite all that went wrong, in the end, they still had a chance. Unfortunately for North Carolina Central the shots just wouldn’t fall.
The Eagles, making their second NCAA tournament trip in school history, fell to UC Davis, 67-63, in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio. The Aggies will advance to take on No. 1 seed Kansas in Tulsa on Friday evening.
N.C. Central could just as easily be making that trip to the Midwest. Instead, they are returning to Durham after a 25-win season, but with a loss that will sting as much as any in school history. The Eagles had two shots at the end to tie it, but senior Pat Cole and classmate Dajuan Graf each missed 3-pointers. After the Aggies snagged the rebound, all N.C. Central could do was foul and watch their season come to an end.
“We had some good looks at the rim,” Graf said. “We just couldn’t knock them down. We were down one, I shot a 3. Coach was telling me to drive the ball. I should have listened to coach and continued driving the ball and finish at the rim.”
U.C. Davis outscored the Eagles 36-29 in the second half, and even though the lead never got to double-digits, it felt like the Aggies were way out in front. The shots weren’t falling from the start as N.C. Central missed point-blank layups, easy buckets, several times in the first half.
“Overall our mentality to begin the game wasn’t where it needed to be,” N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton said. “We had guys, mentally, they just weren’t there and they (UC Davis) punched us in the mouth.”
The Aggies (23-12) jumped out in front of the Eagles (25-9) 18-9, before, as Moton put it, the team gathered itself. N.C. Central battled back in the game by defense. Down 18-9, the Eagles went on a 10-0 run to take its first lead, sparked by three steals that led to baskets. After it appeared the Aggies could miss a shot — started the game shooting 77 percent — they had 10 straight empty possessions.
That got N.C. Central going. Sparked by Kyle Benton’s activity on the offensive boards, and a lineup that featured starters Cole and Graf, along with reserves Ron Trapps and Pablo Rivas, the Eagles were able to settle down, offensively, and harass the Aggies on the other end. Moton switched to a 1-3-1, using the length of Rivas to his advantage.
UC Davis was able to get back into the game, ending the drought with a three from Brynton Lemar (15 points), but N.C. Central ended the half strong, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Graf, putting the Eagles up three at the break. After missing four layups in their first 11 possessions to start the game, N.C. Central shook off the uncharacteristic start, forcing nine UC Davis turnovers in the first half. That defensive spark got the offense going.
“I thought they ... really came after us and became the aggressor for the rest of the half,” UC Davis head coach Jim Les said.
The Eagles started the second half as they started the game. Benton missed a layup, and N.C. Central turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, both times leading to points for the Aggies. UC Davis started the second half on an 11-2 run to go up 42-36 early. After the break, N.C. Central went 1-for-6 from the field and turned the ball over three times on its first nine possessions.
The Eagles started the second half 0-9 from behind the arc, but somehow, mainly through free throw shooting and a heroic effort from Rivas (12 points), stuck around. Madison’s 3 at the 3:28 mark, the first of the second half, pulled N.C. Central within two, 60-58. Moments later a three from Graf (15 points) pulled the Eagles to within one, 64-63.
N.C. Central wouldn’t get another one to go in the rest of the night.
After two missed 3s on one possession by the Aggies, Cole missed a short jumper that would have tied the game. UC Davis went 2-for-3 from the line down the stretch. The Eagles had their chances, but it just wasn’t there night as they finished 5-26 from three.
“We just didn’t make them,” Moton said. “We weren’t even close on some. We had guys who usually make them who weren’t knocking down shots.”
The Eagles had four players who finished in double figures, led by Graf (15), Benton (13 points, 12 rebounds) and Cole (13). N.C. Central forced 18 turnovers, finishing with 10 steals, but was outrebounded by 10 and didn’t have an answer inside for Aggies’ big man Chima Moneke, who finished with a game-high 18 points and 12 rebounds.
N.C. Central missed nine layups in the game. The players didn’t credit the misses to nerves, but Moton wasn’t buying it.
“They’ll tell you they weren’t nervous – they were nervous,” Moton said. “I can look in your eyes and tell when you are nervous.
But all season long, Moton preached to his team that the season would come down to one possession. As bad as they played, the Eagles were 37 seconds away from tying the game and winning the first NCAA tournament game in school history.
“We should have gone on a run earlier instead of having to fight back,” Graf said.