N.C. Central’s men’s basketball defense sometimes appears to be a magic trick. Opponents pass the ball around the perimeter, looking for an opening, only to find the illusion of space or scoring opportunity.
Not this time.
Delaware State found the cracks and slipped by the top-seeded Eagles (25-7) for a 63-57 victory Friday night, upsetting the defending conference champions in the semifinals of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. The No. 5 seeded Hornets ended the Eagles’ 35-game winning streak against conference opponents and earned a place in Saturday’s championship game.
“I have to take the blame,” N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton said. “I didn’t lead us through and that’s what I get paid to do.”
With one of the toughest defenses in the nation, the Eagles entered the tournament beaming with confidence based on their regular season accomplishments, including a 16-0 conference record. They also were targets, knowing every team would give them their best effort.
That couldn’t have been more true against Delaware State, which fell behind in the first half but chipped away at N.C. Central’s lead in the second.
The Hornets (18-16) battled back from a 12-point second-half deficit, finding a second chance at victory late in the game. They pulled even twice with less than three minutes remaining, but finally moved ahead on two free throws from senior guard Amere May with 1 minute, 46 seconds remaining. His crafty ball-handling and accurate free-throw shooting were critical late in the game.
May, who scored a game-high 27 points, knocked down six free throws in the final minute. The Eagles had no answer for his penetration from the perimeter and he drove without hesitation, drawing foul calls.
“We didn’t play as solid as we should,” said N.C. Central senior Jordan Parks, who noticed his team growing tense and emotional after the Hornets punched back.
The Eagles had their chances to regain the lead, but made just 1 of 5 shots after the score was tied 55-all with 2:42 remaining.
On their final possession, after guard Nimrod Hilliard sank a jumper and pulled the score 59-57, the Eagles set up a play for junior guard Dante Holmes from the top of the 3-point line. He drove the lane for a scoop layup and made the shot, though he collided with Delaware State forward Mrdjan Gasevic.
Officials called a charging foul on Holmes that negated his bucket. Moton explained that he let the Eagles down in the late stages of the game, particularly during a timeout before his team’s last possession.
He said that he didn’t instruct Holmes to look for Parks, but instead focus on Anthony McDonald for a 3-pointer. McDonald was covered and Holmes drove the lane.
“I thought it was a block,” Moton said of the official’s call. “I’m supposed to say that. Dante did what he was supposed to do. Get to the rim and put the pressure on the referees.”
Moton said the difference was the Hornets’ 72 percent free-throw shooting (18-of-25) compared to his team’s 63 percent from the line.
May closed out the game with two free throws, sending the Eagles off the floor shaking their heads and immediately looking for another day to play.
Their hopes for a NCAA tournament appearance were likely dashed. The MEAC has historically received just one automatic NCAA tournament bid for the winner of the conference tournament.
The Eagles, having won the conference tournament, will likely be invited to participate in the National Invitation Tournament. Parks said the team will regroup.
“Winners don’t hold their heads down,” he said.