NORFOLK — They were in a familiar position, perhaps even a comfortable position. Tight game, clock winding down, big stakes. Hampton University had thrived in those situations for the most part in recent weeks.
But the third-seeded Pirates were unable to come up with one more basket, one more defensive stop. Instead, sixth-seeded Delaware State and Tahj Tate delivered the knockout blow and escaped with a dramatic 63-60 win Thursday in a MEAC tournament quarterfinal at Scope.
Hampton's season concluded after erasing a 16-point first-half deficit, then squandering an eight-point lead in the final eight minutes.
"We did let one get away," Pirates' coach Ed Joyner Jr. said. "When we went up eight, we started to rush things. Not to slow down and make direct plays. We called a timeout or two at that point again to try to settle them down, to show them now is when you try to put the nail in the coffin and make direct plays."
Tate drove the nail Thursday night, burying an unlikely 3-pointer from the deep left wing with nine seconds remaining and the shot clock at :01 to break a tie at 60.
After a timeout, HU's Deron Powers missed the potential tying 3-pointer with two seconds to play. The Pirates fouled Delaware State's Miles Bowman with 1.2 seconds left. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, but HU was unable to secure the rebound, and the clock ran out.
Hampton (14-17) swept the Hornets in the regular season, winning 85-84 in double overtime at HU and 57-50 in Dover. Delaware State extracted some payback as the conference's top three seeds lost in the quarterfinals.
"This team is very resilient," Delaware State coach Greg Jackson said. "Any time they can deal with me, I know that they can get through anything. I thought it was a helluva basketball game. Two great institutions, two great teams playing. It came down to a tough shot. A very tough player. He probably thinks I'm crazy, I feel the same way about him. But we love him, and we're very fortunate to get a win for our great university."
Indeed, Tate was an unlikely hero, given his actions earlier in the game. He had committed a careless turnover five minutes into the second half and Jackson benched him. He practically melted down, was aggravated about sitting and went to the end of the bench, inconsolable.
Jackson and his assistants finally got Tate to refocus and reinserted him into the game with nine minutes remaining. The first thing Tate did in the postgame news conference was apologize for his behavior.
He certainly made amends on the floor. Powers had missed a contested driving shot with 46 seconds left and the game tied at 60.
On the ensuing possession, HU defenders made Hornets' point guard Albert Thomas pass the ball well beyond the key, with the shot clock ticking down. Thomas found Tate on the deep left wing. Tate bobbled the ball, picked it up, spun and fired.
"I had my eye on the clock," Tate said. "I just wanted to get a good look at the rim. … I think I had a great look and it felt good coming off my hands."
Joyner didn't complain about his team's defense on that sequence.
"When he picked it up, I think it was two or three seconds left on the shot clock," Joyner said. "He turned around and made a tough shot. That was probably the toughest shot that you can possibly make in that situation. Yeah, I thought we defended it well, down to the last part of the shot clock, and the kid hit a contested, deep 3 off of a loose ball."
Hampton overcame a dismal start, falling behind 27-11. The Pirates engineered a 24-point turnaround over an 18-minute span at the end of the first half and through the first 12-plus minutes of the second half.
"Basketball's a game of runs," Jackson said. "We knew they would make a run. We just wanted to make sure that we stayed focused and stayed with the game plan. They made their run and we had our run, and we were able to win a basketball game."
Du'Vaughn Maxwell led the Pirates with 16 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, while Powers added 11 points. Casey Walker and Kendall Gray led Delaware State (15-17) with 13 points apiece.
"I think there were some things we probably could have done to clean it up, to probably seal it, or give ourselves a different look at the end," Joyner said. "But at the end of the day, the kid hit a big shot with no time on the shot clock."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun