The South Carolina State men's basketball team shook its struggles in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play in recent games with a 90-85 home win against MEAC frontrunner North Carolina A&T State on Saturday.
Four Bulldogs scored in double figures as the home team played strong from the opening tip and led for most of the game, in front of a season-record crowd of 518 college basketball fans, including many S.C. State alumni and former Bulldogs basketball players attending Coming Home 2018 festivities on campus.
S.C. State moved to 9-17 on the season, with a 5-6 record in MEAC play. N.C. A&T moved to 15-10 on the season, with an 8-2 record in MEAC play.
"It was an absolute team effort and, as a matter of fact, it was a university effort to get this win," S.C. State head coach Murray Garvin said. "This is the best crowd by far in all my years being here.
"I had alums tell me if we didn't win another game, just beat the Aggies. We were able to do that. The guys came together and got a great win against a solid basketball team."
Donte Wright scored 17 points to lead the Bulldogs, while Patrell Rogers added 16 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists, Janai Raynor-Powell added 13 points, and James "J.J." Richardson added 11 points.
"It was a great team effort, after a hard week coming off the Coppin State loss," Garvin said. "I know that when we beat North Carolina A&T, I don't care if it's in checkers, it's a great night and we are going to celebrate and enjoy it."
Davaris McGowens, the lone Palmetto State player on the Aggies roster, led the visitors with a game-high 26 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot, before fouling out with 3:04 left in the game. Devonte Boykins added 13 points for the visitors, while Denzel Keyes added 10 points and 6 rebounds, and Amari Hamilton added 10 points.
S.C. State came out of the locker room in full-court pressure defense, keeping the Aggies off-balance on offense for the first half. Both teams netted 7 shots from behind the 3-point arc in the contest, but the difference was the home team made 7-of-11 in the first half and never launched another deep shot. The Aggies went 4-for-7 in the opening half, before adding just a 3-for-13 mark in the second half.
"Our game plan was not to have to guard them for 30 seconds in the halfcourt," Garvin said. "As they showed in the second half, they are a very efficient team and coach Joyner has done an outstanding job at A&T in changing the culture of the men's basketball program.
"They are a tough out. I'm glad we played them in Orangeburg. I'm glad the S-H-M was packed. And perfect timing, with this being the 50th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre, this couldn't be a better time to have alumni on campus to share this victory with us."
The Bulldogs took the lead for good at the 15-minute mark of the first half, when Wright followed a 3-pointer by Rogers with back-to-back treys of his own, giving the home team a 14-7 lead.
In the final 5 minutes of the first half, David Bottenberg, Wright and Raynor-Powell each completed 3-point plays to boost the home team to a 45-30 halftime lead.
After a mini scoring run by the Aggies pulled the visitors back to within 10 points early in the second half. But, back-to-back baskets by Justin Jones gave the Bulldogs a 16-point cushion, 60-44, with 13 minutes left to play. A Jones' basket at the 9-minute mark gave the home team its largest lead of the night at 17 points, 68-51.
From there, the Aggies made a scoring push to get back into contention, led by McGowens and Keyes. A 3-minute dry spell on field goals by the home team allowed N.C. A&T to pull to within 9 points, 70-61, with 5 minutes left to play.
But the Bulldogs made 12 of 19 free throws down the stretch to fend off any Aggies' hopes of a rally. Rogers made one of two free throws with 15 seconds left to play and then slammed home a dunk in the final 2 seconds to close out the win.
S.C. State starting power forward Ozante Fields got into foul trouble early in the game, but Alex Taylor (6-foot-9, 305 pounds) came on in his place and supplied 16 quality minutes, during which he scored 8 points, grabbed a team-high 5 rebounds and added a blocked shot.
Both teams were without their top-producing forwards, as the Aggies were without junior Femi Olujobi (17.5 points per game/7.8 rebounds per game) and the Bulldogs were without sophomore forward Damani Applewhite (12.5 points per game/7 rebounds per game), who was dealing with flu-like symptoms.
The Bulldogs play next on Saturday, at 6 p.m. at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. From there, the team will take on Norfolk State in Norfolk, Va. on Monday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m.
N.C. A&T head coach Jay Joyner played four seasons (1993-96) at S.C. State under coach Cy Alexander. Joyner is now 0-2 as a head coach against his alma mater.
N.C. A&T has lost five games in a row to the Bulldogs. The Aggies last win over S.C. State was a 62-60 victory at Corbett Sports Center on March 3, 2014.