With less than four minutes remaining in the MEAC Tournament semifinals, North Carolina Central led by two, but it felt like the tide could turn - either way - at any moment.
That moment came when Eagles senior Larry McKnight, Jr. knocked down a three-pointer to give NCCU a four-point lead with 1:36 remaining. That shot gave NCCU life, and was the springboard to a 65-63 win over rival N.C. A&T in the MEAC Tournament semifinals.
The Eagles will take on No. 1 seed Norfolk State in the finals at 1 pm on Saturday.
The Aggies swept the regular-season series, but it was North Carolina Central who got the last laugh, advancing to the title game for the third straight season. Since moving up to the Division I level, the Eagles are a perfect 3-0 in MEAC championship games.
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“I told our guys it’s very simple, if you want something you have to fight for it,” NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said. “Your fight has to be greater than their fight.”
Raasean Davis led the Eagles (17-15) with a game-high 19 points. Randy Miller, Jr. shook off a quiet first half and finished with 17, scoring 15 in the second half.
Terry Harris and Kameron Langley each scored 14 to lead the Aggies (19-13). Harris hit a three at the final horn to make it a two-point NCCU win, but the Aggies went cold in the last few minutes, missing their last two field goal attempts and needing three free throws to make it interesting once the Eagles went up four.
McKnight scored nine for the Eagles, but his second three of the game was a big one. With NCCU holding a two-point lead, McKnight caught the ball in the corner with the shot clock ticking down. McKnight caught the ball with a defender in his face and threw up a shot with six seconds remaining. Moton later said he knew it was good, basketball karma for a kid that does everything right.
“Good things happen to good people,” Moton said. “That kid has given me everything that I have asked him for. As soon as he put it up I said ‘Bingo.’”
The Eagles were far from done after McKnight’s triple, their last made field goal. They needed four free throws down the stretch and a key steal and layup from reserve guard Nicolas Fennell to seal the win.
After Zacarry Douglas missed a pair of free throw, the Aggies were trying to get the ball up court in a hurry. An A&T player almost stepped out of bounds and blindly threw the ball right into the hands of Fennell under the basket, who was left wide open for his only bucket of the night.
Miller, who only had two points at halftime, got it going midway through the second half. The Eagles tied the game at 39 and took a 42-39 lead, all thanks to Miller, who scored eight of nine NCCU points during the run.
“I was just trying to let the game come to me,” Miller said. “I knew that my teammates would find me. I was really worried about us getting stops defensively and when I got hot, I got hot.”
NCCU led by four at the break in a game in which the biggest lead was five. That was held by the Aggies, who jumped ahead 5-0, but couldn’t hold off the Eagles, who kept chipping away.
Despite not shooting well from the floor during many stretches in the first half, NCCU trailed by two, 18-15, at the 7:52 mark. Two free throws by Jibri Blount made it a one-point game and the Eagles went ahead 19-18 after a Douglas dunk. NCCU controlled the remainder of the half, even though A&T briefly went back in front, 23-21, after a Langley layup.
The Eagles outscored their rivals 7-1 the rest of the way, getting five points in the final three minutes from Davis, who had 13 at the half on 5-7 shooting. The 6-9 Chicago native was constantly calling for the ball in the first half, way more so than he has done at any point this season.
“I just understand how important I am to my team and I just try to make myself available,” Davis said. “Just do whatever my team needs me to do, I just wanted to come out aggressive and play my game.”
During that final run NCCU scored six in a row before the half.
The Aggies and Eagles each had forgettable shooting games in the first half. A&T shot 33.3 percent, while NCCU shot 43.5. Free throws, however, were a plus for both teams. The Aggies were a perfect 6-6 from the stripe, while the Eagles only missed two foul shots.
The difference in the opening 20 minutes were 14 points in the paint for NCCU. Davis scored four in a row in the paint to put NCCU up 11-10 early, but the Aggies countered with a 6-0 run - all free throws - to take their second five-point lead.
A&T then hit one of its next six shots from the floor, leaving the door open for the Eagles to creep back in the game.
NCCU took advantage and will face the Spartans in a rematch of the 2017 MEAC title game. NSU defeated Howard in the first semifinal and took out the Eagles, 75-70, in overtime on Feb. 16. Davis felt like that game was the turning point of the season for NCCU and now they get a shot at redemption with another trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Davis wasn’t looking for a rematch, just glad the Eagles are back in the title game.
“Honestly, I wasn’t wanting anybody specific,” Davis said. “It really doesn’t matter about the opponent as long as we handle our business.”