NORFOLK, Va. — The wave
had ridden since the first week of February crashed Saturday in the finals of the
wiped out one game short of their goal.
North Carolina A&T got only a basket from Bruce Beckford and two free throws from Adrian Powell in the game's final 3:57, but it was enough to finish a 57-54 win that earned the Aggies their first
tournament berth since 1995.
Enough, because Morgan State could answer only with Blake Bozeman's 3-point basket in a finish that lacked art, if not excitement.
"It was crazy," said Aggies coach Cy Alexander, wearing a net from Scope Arena as a necklace, a souvenir for his first season with the team. "We would run our delay offense into a play set, and then we would miss a shot. Then we've got to go back down and hope that we could get a shot and a rebound. It was a long three minutes, I can tell you."
It was longer still for Morgan State, which saw its offense break down during that span and players take over individually, throwing up hope-it-goes-in shots. Only Bozeman's did.
Two last-ditch efforts by DeWayne Jackson, the only Morgan State senior, were thwarted — one of them on a block by A&T's Adrian Powell, named the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. That block finished things off, and Jackson fell to the floor, pulling his shirt over his face and weeping while a celebration sprang up around him.
"It wasn't A&T," Jackson said of Morgan State's disarray over the last four minutes. "It was us. Coach [Todd Bozeman] was trying to get us to calm down and play our game. It was us."
Jackson led all scorers with 20 points and added seven rebounds. He scored Morgan State's first eight points, and A&T went to a trick defense to slow him down. The Aggies put Powell on Jackson in a "box-and-one" scheme for a bit, and it hampered Jackson's ability to get loose for a shot.
Lamont Middleton — who scored all 13 of his points in the second half — gave the Aggies the lead for good at 43-40 when he hit a 3-pointer with 11:34 to play, but that stood only because Morgan State couldn't seem to buy a free throw. The Bears, at the bottom of the conference in free throw shooting all season, were 8 for 20 for the game and 6 for 14 over the last part of the second half.
"You're not going to win many games when you're shooting 40 percent from the free throw line," Todd Bozeman said. "And we didn't rebound when we needed to. We had our opportunities."
There was irony in the free throw issue.
Just after Morgan State dropped to 5-13 in February, Bozeman and the players "rededicated" their efforts, he said.
"Early in the season we were losing games by missing free throws and turning the ball over," the coach said. "I told the guys that we would try different things. We would shoot 100 a day. Not shooting them at all. We tried everything."
And nothing worked. The Bears were last in the MEAC in free-throw shooting percentage.
"I finally decided if we just play defense and don't turn the ball over, that will give us a better chance to win," Todd Bozeman said.
They won 11 of the next 12 games going into the MEAC final.
"I guess free throw shooting bit us in the butt," Bozeman said.
They finished one game one game short.
Jackson seemed to symbolize the impact of that game.
"I wanted to get him that tournament for his senior year," Todd Bozeman said.
Instead, it was left to Jackson to explain falling short. He pondered the question, paused then pulled the front of a sweatshirt over his face while sitting at a podium 35 minutes after the game ended.
"I tried my best," he finally said, sobbing.
There was nothing left for him — or the Bears — to say.