North Carolina A&T offset Howard's decisive height advantage with a shifting zone defense that the Bison couldn't crack and won the tournament championship of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference today, 79-67, in a fight-marred game.
The Aggies (19-8) automatically earned a berth in the NCAA tournament and will play West Virginia in the first round of the Western Regional Thursday in Logan, Utah.
A bench clearing second-half brawl held up play for 10 minutes. With 1:35 remaining and the Aggies leading, 71-60, Howard's Rodney Wright fouled James Horace. The two started shouting at each other, then started pushing.
James Ratiff came to the 5-foot-10 Wright's defense as the 6-5 Horace cocked his right hand. Ratiff punched Horace, who lay dazed for several minutes and was wobbly-legged when he tried to arise.
After that exchange, fights broke out all over the floor. The Aggies' Joe Binion and Ratiff exchanged blows, both getting cuts on the mouth. Coaches A.B. Williamson of Howard and Don Corbett of A&T tried in vain to break up the skirmishes.
When officials Jim Howell and Bob Barnett restored order, they awarded two-shot flagrant technical fouls to both teams. No players were thrown out of the game, although Ratiff and Horace did not play again.
When play resumed, the Aggies' Ron Stinchcomb made only one of his two technical foul shots and Ed Swails made both of his for Howard. The Bison trailed by only six, 71-65, with 61 seconds left.
After the Aggies' Brian Booker made a free throw, Chauncey Terry scored to make it 72-67 with 45 seconds to go. But the Aggies got the last seven points when the Bison missed one shot and two free throws and threw away the ball once.
There seemed to be no ill feelings among the players, who exchanged handshakes afterward. "It just happened, nobody planned it," said Wright. "Nobody wanted anybody to get hurt and no one wants to see games get like that. I have to give A&T a lot of credit because this is the third time they've beaten us this season. They deserve to go to the (NCAA) tournament and I hope they do well."
The Bison had a basic problem today: They couldn't shoot. The Aggies packed their zone inside and spread it to the corners, forcing the Bison into 30 percent shooting.
"This was our third game in three days and we got tired," said Williamson. "Our shots were falling short all game long. We aren't a good perimeter shooting team anyway and that 2-3 zone A&T played made it particularly tough for us to get the ball inside."
The Bison had won this tournament the last two seasons and finished this season with a 17-11 record. They made their first appearance in the NCAA tournament last season.
Once the Bison discovered how difficult it was to get the ball inside, they started shooting from outside. But only Bernard Perry was successful. He had 22 points, but was ejected midway through the second half for a flagrant foul against Horace.
Contributing to the poor shooting were Ratiff (three for 16), James Terry (4-12) and Wright (0-7).
The Aggies, who will be making their first NCAA tournament appearance, shot 53 percent and had all five starters in double figures. Eric Boyd, the tournament's most valuable player, had 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Despite its poor shooting, Howard trailed by only 33-30 at halftime. But the Aggies outscored the visitors, 8-2, the first five minutes of the next half to take a 41-32 lead. Horace and Boyd each had four points in that spurt. All Howard could get were two free throws from Perry.
After trailing later by as many as 11 points, the Bison, on baskets by Ratiff and Chauncey Terry, closed to 50-44 with 12 minutes remaining. Following a timeout, however, Binion scored five straight points and Antoine Collins two to get the Aggies' lead up to 13.
Four free throws by Boyd on one possession, after a personal foul against Gino Warner and a technical foul against Williamson, boosted the Aggies' lead to 68-51 with 3:30 remaining. Howard was trying to make its move when the brawl broke out.