One scene, repeated time and again, told the story of Howard's 67-57 victory over South Carolina State tonight in the semifinal round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
A Howard player would miss a shot, but forward Derek Caracciolo was almost always there to step inside the Bulldogs' zone for the offensive rebound and either score or be fouled and make the ensuing foul shots.
Caracciolo grabbed 13 rebounds, most leading to his game-high 17 points, as Howard, the No. 1 seed in this tournament and the regular-season champion, advanced to the title game (tonight at 9) for the fifth consecutive year. Howard will meet North Carolina A&T, the regular-season runner-up, which beat Maryland-Eastern Shore, 81-74, in the other semifinal as Joe Binion and Eric Boyd had 22 points each. It will be the third straight meeting between the two winners in the tournament final.
The Bison won their 12th straight conference game and raised their overall record to 19-8, but it wasn't pretty.
"It never is pretty," said Howard Coach A.B. Williamson. "We don't have the slam-dunking glory of last year. But we do what's necessary."
South Carolina State (12-15) had its man-to-man defense burned so much early in the game by Howard's Bernard Perry (14 points) and Kevin Scott (16 points) that Coach Johnny Jones decided to use a 1-2-2 zone.
The zone stopped Perry and Scott. But Williamson knew that a 1-2-2 zone leaves an open space beneath the center of the basket.
"State has been a man-to-man defensive team all year," said Williamson. "And by not playing much zone, they aren't used to the rebounding lanes in a 1-2-2."
So Caracciolo stepped into that open area and took over the game.
He tipped in a missed shot by David Wynn to give Howard a 37-30 lead at the start of the second half. And Caracciolo made four consecutive free throws after rebounding misses by his teammates. For the game, he made 11 of 14 foul shots. Caracciolo was getting inside so easily that point guard Gino Warner called him aside and told him to flash across the lane for a pass.
Seconds later, Warner threw a chest pass to Caracciolo that resulted in a finger roll and a 44-38 Howard lead.
S.C. State mounted a major threat however, pulling within 44-42 with 10:45 remaining on two 22-foot jumpers by guard Tony Ashford. When Ashford stole the ball from Perry seconds later, the Bulldogs had a chance to take the lead. But Ashford, who made six jumpers outside of 20 feet, missed a 24-footer.
State fouled trying to get the rebound, its seventh foul of the half, with 9:03 still remaining. Caracciolo made two free throws for a 46-42 lead. Scott made one of two free throws. And Wynn, told by Williamson to keep shooting, made an 18-footer over the zone for a 49-42 Howard lead.
The Bulldogs were reduced to jump shooting from there, playing much of the time without 6-foot-8 Franklin Giles, the nation's second-leading rebounder. Giles came into the game averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds, but tonight had only two points and three rebounds in 23 minutes.
The Bulldogs traded baskets with Howard for several possessions. But soon, Caracciolo got a second wind and resumed exploiting State's zone. He followed a Perry miss with a layup for a 57-50 Bison lead, and the Bulldogs never got closer than five points thereafter, even though Warner and Perry were out three of the last four minutes with four fouls.
Caracciolo added a final touch by intercepting a would-be assist pass to Giles with one minute left, then blocking Ashford's short jumper with 40 seconds left.