WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - With his 22nd birthday a week away, Danny Agbelese threw himself a block party Wednesday night.
Agbelese, Hampton's 6-foot-8 senior forward, had eight blocks to go with eight points, and senior guard Christopher Tolson scored a game-high 16 as the eighth-seeded Pirates upset top seed Savannah State, 59-46, in the quarterfinals of theMid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
"I'm not ready to go home," Agbelese said. "I packed for all week."
Hampton (12-20) is the defending tournament champion, but struggled to a 10-20 regular season, losing 12 games by single digits and their last two regular-season games by a combined 25. But like last year, when they came into the tournament on a three-game losing streak, the Pirates are getting it together when it counts most.
"I've been telling them all year, 'We're getting better for the tournament,' " HU coach Ed Joyner said. "The regular season I wanted, but at the end of the day, to get what you want, you've got to win this tournament. We've geared ourselves for that, and right now, they're showing up."
Tolson showed up Wednesday, scoring 13 second-half points, including a personal 11-2 run that began with the Pirates up two and ended with them leading 48-37 with 5:04 to play.
"Coach Joyner is always telling me to be aggressive," said Tolson, who was 7-of-13 from the floor and had a team-high eight rebounds. "At the beginning of the season, I wasn't as aggressive as I could (be). I felt like I was letting my team down. As a senior, I have to step up some way in the game. If it's not points, then defense. If it's not defense, rebounds. Something. That's just what I wanted to do."
While Tolson brought his aggression off the bounce, slicing to the basket for driving layups like the one that pushed HU's lead to 50-44 with 2:13 left, Agbelese was a dominating force inside. Two of his blocks came in the final two minutes as the Tigers (21-11), regular-season champions in just their second full season of MEAC membership, made just eight of their 33 second-half shot attempts.
"We just came out too anxious to play, and we didn't play our game," said junior forward Rashad Hassan, limited by foul trouble to eight points – five less than his team-leading season average. "(Agbelese) did a good job defending the paint, but I believe we could've done a better job of being tougher in there and drawing contact and finishing stronger."
Agbelese also had back-to-back rejections on one Savannah State first-half possession that left him hopping and screaming in exultation.
"Once I get a block, it's time to turn the energy up," he said. "Once I get that block, I'm into the game. I just try to get all of them that I can, to keep me in the game and keep these guys in the game and let them know I got their back."
While Agbelese was patrolling the post, the usually perimeter-oriented Pirates were exploiting it. Despite being outrebounded 46-30 (including a 24-9 deficit on the offensive boards), HU outscored Savannah State 32-20 in the paint.
"We wanted to see how many times we could touch the paint and get shots," Joyner said. "We don't traditionally score in the low post. We put it on these guys (to) get in the paint. We only shot 14 3-pointers. We average 20, 25. We shot 14."
The Pirates were 3-of-14 from long range but 20-of-48 (41.7 percent) from the field. Senior guard Darrion Pellum had 12 points, and junior forward Wesley Dunning added 10 points and seven rebounds.
HU will face the winner of Thursday night's game between fifth seed N.C. Central and fourth seedBethune-Cookmanin Friday's 6 p.m. semifinal.
"We thought we've had the formula all year," Joyner said. "For some reason, it didn't work. I keep telling these guys, 'Keep believing.' "
It's a message that seems to get through in March.
"When it comes down to this time of year, in March, for this tournament, we just click," Tolson said. " … That experience last year was like none other. We talk about it all the time. We got it done, and I just want to have that feeling again."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times