Trailing by 10 points late in the game, North Carolina A&T limited Howard to a single point for more than five minutes and rallied to stun the Bison, 53-52, in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament championship game today before 8,500 at the Civic Center.
Of all Coach A.B. Williamson's defeats in his 11 years as head coach at Howard, this may have been the most bitter. This was the fifth straight season A&T (22-7) has defeated Howard (19-10) in the title game to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Howard was victimized by a 16-1 A&T run over the final five minutes. Aggies sophomore Thomas Griffis made four free throws in the final 34 seconds to pull out the victory. A&T, which has won 15 straight games, will play Kansas Thursday in a first-round NCAA game at Dayton, Ohio.
"We thought we had the game," said Williamson, whose team also lost a lead in the final minutes against A&T in last year's final. "I didn't feel it slipping away until we were only up by four.
"In our 'four, four, four' plan, you want to play well in the first four minutes of the first half, the first four minutes of the second half and the final four minutes of the game. It seems every time we play them, one of those four-minute segments kills us."
Perhaps the Aggies were waiting for that final four minutes.
"I told the team not to rush when we were down by 10 points ," A&T Coach Don Corbett said. "We had a lot of confidence in our ability to come back. We have a young team three sophomore starters, one freshman and one junior but they're are very competitive. I have no answers why we won but I'm glad we did."
Robert McIlwaine's tip-in over two defenders pushed the Bison out to the largest lead either team held, 47-37, with 5:28 to play.
At that point, Howard, which split regular-season games with arch-rival A&T, had things pretty much in control. The Bison's man-to-man defense had stifled the Aggies, and the few shots the top-seeded team managed were not falling.
A follow-up shot by Mike Hampton (10 points) had given the Bison a 30-28 lead. With the score tied at 33, Hampton added two more baskets and McIlwaine (10) had five points as the Bison went on a 14-4 run to take a 10-point lead.
But the Bison, who played poorly in the first half when they trailed by 23-22, collapsed. Three turnovers, five missed shots -- one of them a layup -- two missed front ends of one-and-one foul situations and an offensive foul call contributed to the Bison's demise.
"You have to execute in the final minutes," Williamson said. "It's definitely psychological."
While Williamson was trying to snap his team out of its lethargy, Claude Williams (12 points, 12 rebounds) dropped in six free throws and a baseline jumper, Griffis (12 points) had a long jumper and four free throws and Lee Robinson (11 points) had a basket during the Aggies' 16-1 run.
"In the last five minutes, we held our composure and played good defense," Williams said. "Howard missed their free throws and we made ours."
The Aggies scored eight straight points to pull within 47-45 before William Stuart made one of two foul shots to give Howard a 48-45 lead with 2:34 to play.
Griffis then hit a 22-footer and Williams made two free throws to put the Aggies ahead, 49-48, with 48 seconds left.
The Bison committed a turnover on their next possession when Griffis slipped behind Hampton and tipped the ball away. Griffis came up with the loose ball and was fouled. "I just went for the ball and tipped it away," Griffis said.
Griffis, a 5-foot-8 point guard, made both foul shots to give the Aggies a 51-48 lead with 34 seconds left.
After Howard's Fred Hill (10 points) committed an offensive foul, Griffis was fouled again and made two foul shots for a 53-48 A&T lead with 23 seconds left.
Howard's Earl Smith made two free throws and Hill scored with three seconds left to cut the margin to 53-52. The Bison fouled Orvis Cates, who missed his foul shot. Bison guard Mike Jones threw up a 65-footer but it wasn't close as the buzzer sounded.