North Carolina Central executed a perfect half-court set with 8:19 remaining in the game.
Point guard Jordan Perkins found Larry McKnight for a backdoor cut, and McKnight, the 230 pound forward built like a football player, threw down a dunk that brought the fans in McDougald-McLendon Arena to their feet. That basket showed a glimpse of how good the Eagles can be when they execute their offense to a T. It didn’t happen every play, but there were enough flashes for N.C. Central to pull off a 68-59 win over Bethune-Cookman in the MEAC opener for both school.
“We knew it was going to be a dog fight coming in here,” Eagles head coach LeVelle Moton said. “That’s the projected No. 1 team and they beat us pretty good last year and we just wanted to come out and redeem ourselves. Our guys were ready to play.”
Four players scored in double figures, led by center Raasean Davis with 16 to go along with 12 rebounds. McKnight, Perkins and Reggie Gardner each scored 12. Davis and McKnight were both perfect from the field, with Davis hitting all seven of his field goal attempts and McKnight going a perfect 6-for-6 from the floor.
“Everybody just followed the plan,” McKnight. “They said it was going to be a dogfight and we lived up to that.”
In the preseason the Wildcats were picked to win the conference, one spot ahead of the Eagles, who have won the last two MEAC Tournaments.
And in the beginning, it looked like Bethune (5-10, 0-1) would live up to that billing as the best team in the league, jumping out to an early 8-2 lead. The Eagles (6-9, 1-0), didn’t do themselves any favors, at one point missing five straight 3s, but once they got their act together - hitting shots, executing in the half court, defending - the game was all NCCU.
McKnight’s dunk put the Eagles up 11, and moments later, after a layup from McKnight, N.C. Central had its biggest lead of the game with eight minutes remaining.
The Eagles showed signs of a five-game layoff, starting the game with a missed layup, two turnovers and a missed three on their first four possessions. At the first break in action, N.C. Central trailed by four, and had only hit one field goal.
“We didn’t attack early,” Moton said. “But overall it’s a great team win.”
By the time Gardner hit the first 3 of the game for the Eagles, N.C. Central had gone on a 6-3 run, and pulled to within three. They took their first lead of the game moments later on another three from Gardner, and never looked back, leading by three at the half. McKnight’s slam, the conclusion of a perfect set that saw at least four different players touch the ball, gave the Eagles their first double-digit lead, which would balloon to as many as 12 in the final five minutes. The Wildcats clawed back to pull to within seven, but the Eagles scored 11 in a row, six coming from the foul line to seal with win.
N.C. Central gets a leg up on Bethune, before the rematch on Feb. 2 in Daytona Beach. The Eagles return to action on Monday when they travel to Coppin State. Dating back to last March, N.C. Central is on a six-game MEAC winning streak. The Eagles have now won 14 straight home games.
“Anytime you can win a conference game, it’s a wonderful feeling,” Moton said. “What people don’t understand is, how difficult it is to win a college basketball game.”