By Carl Lut Williams
Black College Sports Page
Sixth-seeded North Carolina Central closed the game on a 13-4 run over the last four-plus minutes to knock off top-seed Hampton, 71-63 in the championship game of the MEAC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Norfolk, Va. Saturday.
Senior forward Pablo Rivas, named the tournament’s most valuable player, led the Eagles (19-15) with 22 points including six points over the final stretch that saw NCCU break from a 58-all tie with 4:19 left. Hampton tied the score at 58 on a 3-pointer by Kalin Fisher but did not score from the field again until a meaningless layup by Malique Trent-Street with :18 seconds left.
The go-ahead score for NCCU was on a lay-in by redshirt-junior center Raasean Davis with 2:21 to play. It came on a possession where the Eagles got four tries at the basket beginning with a key offensive rebound from guard John Guerra and the last two caroms hauled in by Davis who then put it in for a lead they would not relinquish. The Davis basket was the last of 11 lead changes in the game.
While Hampton missed its next four shots from the field, NCCU canned 8 of 9 free throws to salt the game away.
The win allows the Eagles and head coach LeVelle Moton to claim back-to-back tournament crowns after taking last year’s title and earns them a return trip to the NCAA Tournament with the automatic berth from the conference. Hampton and head coach Edward “Buck” Joyner were making their third trip to the finals in four years after winning back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.
“We came in as a sixth seed and some people had written us off,” said Moton after the victory. “They didn’t believe in us, and honestly, they probably shouldn’t have believed in us. But we believed in each other and that’s all that mattered was these guys in the locker room.”
NCCU lost its top six players from a year ago and starts two freshmen in the backcourt in point guard Jordan Perkins and off-guard Reggie Gardner whose play was critical to the win.
Perkins scored 13 points and had a game-high nine assists. Guerra added 12 points and Gardner had 11 with both connecting on two 3-pointers. Davis led the Eagles off the board with 9 rebounds.
Trent-Street led the Pirates (17-15) with 15 points. Fisher and Akim Mitchell finished with 11 points. All-conference guard Jermaine Marrow was held to 9 points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field.
Hampton led A&T 28-27 at the half. To that point, the game was tied three times and had eight lead changes. Rivas led NCCU with 11 first-half points while Gardner and Davis had 5 each. Trent-Street and Akim Mitchell led Hampton with 7 each. Trent-Street’s 3-pointer in the final minute gave Hampton the lead at the break.
NCCU opened the second half on a 11-2 run, three of the four baskets on 3-pointers, two by Guerra, to go up 38-30 on a three by Rivas at the 17:52 mark. Hampton responded with an 9-2 run to pull within 40-39 on a Trevond Barnes dunk off a feed from Trent-Street with 14:28 left.
A&T surged again as Gardner scored six straight for the Aggies on a 12-6 stretch that included back-to-back driving baskets by Perkins and a basket by Dominque Reed across the lane that put them up 52-45 at the 9:22 mark.
An 8-0 Hampton run ensued capped by Greg Hexstalls’ pull-up jumper with 7:29 to play that gave the Pirates their first lead of the second half at 53-52. Three minutes later, Fisher tied it at 58 on his 3-pointer setting up the final heroics.
Hampton tied with Savannah State and Bethune-Cookman for the regular season title with 12-4 conference records but was awarded the top seed in the tournament based on its better record against the tied teams. The Pirates will play in the NIT by virtue of its top seeded. The NIT field will be announced Sunday night.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Pablo Rivas, North Carolina Central
ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM
Pablo Rivas, North Carolina Central
Raasean Davis, North Carolina Central
Charles Wilson-Fisher, Hampton
Malique Trent-Street, Hampton
Tiwain Kindley, Morgan State
OUTSTANDING TOURNAMENT COACH
LeVelle Moton, North Carolina Central