GREENSBORO, N.C. – Cy Alexander still has the moves to make it to “The Big Dance.”
Back in 2003, he coached the only Palmetto State team to reach the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that year in South Carolina State. A decade later, he has North Carolina A&T in a field of 68 that has no South Carolina-based teams.
The first stop is Dayton, Ohio, where the Aggies (19-16) face Liberty (15-20) in the opening round game at 6:40 tonight.
“It’s been a nice journey,” Alexander said Monday in a telephone interview. “We thought we could be a decent team this year, but to have come in our very first year to a program that’s had 15 consecutive losing seasons, we think we’re way ahead of schedule to have won the championship this year.
“I give all the credit to the players and our assistant coaches for working as hard as they both worked and believing in the things that I’ve tried to get them all to believe in, which is you play hard, you play smart, you play together and play with confidence and nothing supersedes organization, preparation and hard work. So, between the staff and the players, we are where we are right now and it’s a great step for the program.”
Alexander led S.C. State to seven MEAC tournament title games, winning five of those contests over a 16-year span. When he left S.C. State in 2003, he had won nearly 60 percent of his games and more than 70 percent of his conference games.
In winning this year’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, Alexander and N.C. A&T achieved a couple of milestones in earning the automatic qualifier. The four tournament wins gave Alexander the most all time among MEAC men’s basketball coaches and earned the Aggies their first NCAA berth since 1995.
Ironically, it was the 1995-96 S.C. State team that Alexander took to its second NCAA tournament appearance. It’s also the team Alexander said most closely resembles his Aggies team with its seven seniors and intense “hunger” for a championship.
“If you’ve ever had a great steak before that’s high-quality meat and we just wanted that opportunity to taste something that good,” he said. “These guys are thirsty for someone to help them experience that and that’s what we tried to come in and do ... is helping them understand that the only way you get here is through hard work and preparation. And they worked extremely hard in the weight room, they worked extremely hard in conditioning and they worked extremely hard in practice.”
Reaching the NCAA tournament appeared a long shot a month ago for North Carolina A&T. The team was under .500 and mired in a three-game losing streak that started Feb. 16 at Alexander’s former stomping grounds in Orangeburg.
The first trip back at the school he led to five NCAA tournament appearances and the most victories in school history was a disappointing 72-70 loss that ended the Bulldogs’ 25-game losing streak in MEAC play. North Carolina A&T lost two nights later at defending regular-season champion Savannah State 56-49 and dropped a 51-47 contest to in-state rival North Carolina Central.
The fifth straight loss to the Eagles was, in Alexander’s view, the “turning point” of the season.
“We had a tremendous game in Durham even though we lost,” Alexander said. “And the only reason we lost is because we shot 31 percent (6-19) from the free-throw line. You go to the free-throw line 19 lines and make six. They went to the line 21 times and made 19. We knew we could beat them when we left there.”
North Carolina A&T rebounded to avenge the S.C. State loss at home 58-35 and split its last two regular-season games against Savannah State (59-57 win) and this year’s regular-season champion Norfolk State (55-48) to enter the conference tournament as a seventh seed.
After opening play with a 65-54 win over Florida A&M, the Aggies got their rematch with North Carolina A&T. They trailed 7-0 to open the game, only to outscore the Eagles 20-8 the remaining 15 minutes of the first half.
N.C. A&T held North Carolina Central to 22.6 percent for the game and forced 17 turnovers. Coupled with 13 points each from leading scorers senior Adrian Powell and junior Lamont Middleton, the Aggies pulled away for a 55-42 win.
The “revenge tour” continued two nights later when N.C. A&T defeated Delaware State 84-78 in the semifinals. This set the stage for a finals match-up with Morgan State and a chance to avenge a 55-52 loss on Jan. 26.
It was a contest with no lead greater than six points before the Aggies got two free throws from Powell and watched the Bears’ DeWayne Jackson’s 3-pointer carom off the back rim to take the 57-54 win. Powell was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring a team-high 14 points.
For the Aggies to continue their journey on the Road to Atlanta, Alexander said his guards Powell, Middleton and Jean Louisme must hold their own against Liberty’s high-scoring backcourt of John Sanders, Davon Marshall and Tavares Speaks.
Senior forward and MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Austin Witter must also continue to provide a strong defensive presence, which Alexander said is vital in trying to douse the Flames’ offense.
North Carolina A&T is 2-0 against Big South teams, defeating Campbell and Radford, while Liberty is winless against the MEAC with losses to Morgan State and Howard. At the same time, the quick turnaround as compared to previous NCAA tournament appearances has forced Alexander to cram all the preparation into a couple of days.
“We had to get on a charter flight at 6:30 this morning and get out here to Dayton,” he said. “So it’s been a whirlwind. From that standpoint, it’s probably a disadvantage because ... I’m a guy that likes to prepare and we’ve had to prepare on the run. I’ve put a lot on my staff to try to get us ready for Liberty. But at the same time, it may be an advantage because we just played about three days ago and we still have that edge. We’re still up.”
A win tonight would mean another flight, this time to Lexington, Ky., to face overall top seed Louisville Thursday in the Midwest Region.
When asked if this year is his best coaching job, Alexander deflected the praise to his players and staff.
“I’m just thankful to the players and staff for believing in what I tried to bring and that was hard work and organization and a belief that if you worked hard and believe something, you can make it happen.”
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AGGIES VS. FLAMES
- WHO: North Carolina A&T (19-16) vs. Liberty (15-20)
- WHAT: NCAA Tournament (1st round)
- WHERE: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
- WHEN: 6:40 p.m. tonight
- TV: TruTV (Channel 204 on The Dish Network and Channel 246 on DirecTV)