N.C. Central came out against rival North Carolina A&T sporting all black uniforms, going away from their traditional grey home jerseys for Saturday’s “blackout” game.
In the first half the new look, along with the packed house in McDougald-McLendon Arena, was almost the Eagles’ downfall, according to N.C. Central head coach LeVelle Moton.
“In the first half I thought we were too cool,” Moton said. “I thought we were too concerned with how we looked. My halftime speech kind of changed that a little bit.”
The Eagles responded in the second half, pulling away to defeat the Aggies, 82-59.
Senior guard Dajuan Graf, who finished with 11 points and 10 assists, can see why Moton would say that. Graf admitted he spent more time than usual adjusting his uniform. Senior guard Pat Cole said the group, loving their new gear, played for the crowd, especially those who had never played in a home game before against A&T (1-19, 0-7).
“His (Coach Moton) halftime speech got us right,” Graf said with a smile.
Despite a hot start, jumping out to a 10-0 lead, the Eagles (14-6, 5-1) needed every ounce of energy from the crowd to fend off the Aggies, who came into the game riding an 18-game losing streak. Of course, in a rivalry game that didn’t matter much. A&T tied the game twice in the first half, playing way above what their record showed.
Even though the Eagles didn’t come out playing as “cool” after halftime, they started the second half 0-for-6 from the field and the Aggies pulled to within seven. That’s when Moton’s seniors, mainly Cole and Graf, took over.
“I tell them all the time it’s their team I just happen to run up and down the sideline and act like I know what I’m doing,” Moton said. “They really pulled it out for us.”
Cole, who finished with 27 points, six rebounds and seven assists, left his stamp all over the second half, starting with a 3, putting the Eagles up 44-36. Moments later he knocked down another triple to give the home team a 12-point lead. After a media timeout, Cole proved he was far from done.
He hit a free throw, knocked down another three and found senior forward Kyle Benton for a layup to give the Eagles a much more comfortable 14-point lead. When he wasn’t making any shot he wanted, Cole was finding teammates, like Graf, who converted a layup to make it 63-48. Cole scored five points during N.C. Central’s next four possessions, and ending the Aggies attempt at an upset.
“Once you start making shots,” Cole explained, “the court and the basket get bigger. Not only the basket, the court gets wider and everything starts to look open to you.”
Graf, for one, wasn’t surprised, saying Cole does things like he did versus the Aggies everyday in practice.
“We know he’s one of the best passers on the team, he can score the ball,” Graf said. “He just came out and did it tonight. He carried us.”
Cole had plenty of help from senior guard Rashuan Madison and junior forward Pablo Rivas, who each finished with 12 points. Cole also gave all the credit to walk-on sophomore guard John Guerra, who stayed and rebounded for him after shoot around, when Cole put up about 600 extra shots.
“Every shot I made tonight I give credit to that man.”
N.C. Central’s 16 made 3’s were a season high. Cole made eight of his 12 long-range attempts, a career-high for the senior from Newark, N.J. When asked if he had to say anything to Cole or Graf at halftime, Moton said no words were necessary. They remembered dropping two games to the Aggies a year ago.
“Pain changes you,” Moton said. “Any basketball player with some pride wants to come and avenge that loss. They are two young men who are both competitive and they carried this team tonight.”
The Eagles head to Delaware on Monday for a rematch with Delaware State, the team that handed N.C. Central its only conference defeat so far this year.
Aggies beat Lady Eagles
The N.C Central women’s basketball team had a collapse of major proportions during Saturday’s home contest with rival North Carolina A&T.
The Lady Eagles (3-15, 2-4) , the lowest scoring team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, struggled to score - just as they had in the previous three games - as they fell to the Aggies, 62-38. After an impressive 2-0 start to MEAC play, N.C. Central has dropped four in a row.
N.C. Central, which has the lowest field goal percentage (.29 percent) per game in the league, started out on fire, shooting 41.2 percent from the floor in the opening quarter of play. The Eagles led by as many as seven in the first quarter and were up six, 18-12, at the end of the first.
That would be as good as it would get. Freshman guard Jada Blow’s three-pointer with 52 seconds remaining in the first gave N.C. Central 18 points. But the Eagles started the second 0-for-4 from the field, finishing 1-for-12 from the field in that quarter. Their only field goal was a layup by freshman forward Erin Houser.
The Lady Eagles missed five layups during the drought, including two on the same possession. N.C. Central also went 0-for-4 from the foul line as the Aggies (8-12, 4-3) outscored the Eagles 23-2 in the second, building a 15-point lead at the half.
“It was really tough for us,” N.C. Central head coach Vanessa Taylor said. “Our bench wasn’t able tonight to keep it going from the first quarter and flow into the second quarter.”
The third quarter didn’t start any better for N.C. Central, which had to wait four minutes into the second half before getting its first field goal, another layup from Houser.
In four league losses in MEAC play, the Lady Eagles have 50 points or more just once, and under 40 points twice. For the first time in league play no N.C. Central player scored in double digits. Senior guard Morgan Jones led the Lady Eagles with nine points, Houser finished with eight off the bench.
Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001