Photo by: Randy Singleton
NORFOLK, Va.– North Carolina Central parlayed the scoring of the trio of Patrick Cole, Dajuan Graf and Rashaun Madison and some stifling second-half defense into a 67-59 win over Norfolk State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Tournament championship game at the Scope Arena.
As a result, the Eagles (25-8), the No. 1 seed, receive the automatic bid and await Sunday’s pairings from the NCAA.
NCCU, which won its two previous tournament contests by large margins to get to the final, found itself in a battle in the first half as the Spartans (17-16), the No. 2 seed, led 38-35 at the half.
Zaynah Robinson proved to be the catalyst for Norfolk State, scoring 10 first-half points and setting up teammates Kyle Williams (eight points) and Kerwin Okoro (nine points). Cole led NCCU with 11 points.
“We had won by large margins in the previous two games, so when Norfolk came out and hit us early, it woke us up,” said Cole, the MEAC Player of the Year.
The two teams continued to go back and forth early in the second half with there featuring four ties and three lead changes. Then the Eagles, who are rated one of the top defensive scoring teams in the country, made some adjustments and shut down the Spartans with a 17-0 run during a 10:33 span that opened a 62-46 lead with 3:15 remaining.
“That was a critical point in the game,” Norfolk State head coach Robert Jones said. “We had four chances at one point to cut the deficit from eight to sox or less, but we failed to and on the fifth, they took the lead to 10.”
Cole, Madison and Graf combined for 22 points, among them with many of the points coming off fastbreak and transition baskets. After shooting a respectable 43 percent in the first half, the NCCU defense forced 24 missed shots by the Eagles.
“I thought that we did not play the kind of defense that we are accustomed to,” Eagles head coach LeVelle Moton, MEAC Coach of the Year, said. “We made some adjustments and did a much better job in the second half. Defense is who we are.”
Another key to the win was the effective defense on Robinson and Wade. Robinson, who was directing traffic with precision in the first half and hitting shots, was limited 3-for-9 shooting while Wade, the team’s leading scorer, was held to five points.
“We wanted to make things a little more difficult for Robinson and Wade,” said Moton. “We pushed them out a little further and forced some bad shots.”
Robinson finished with 18, Okoro with 12 off the bench and Williams with eight points and 10 rebounds.
The Eagles were led by Cole with 18, Graf with 17 and Madison with 12.