A season’s worth of tight games and comebacks again served Hampton University well, but the Pirates learned that playing from behind isn’t a consistent formula for success.
The Pirates climbed out of a steep hole, but North Carolina Central’s late poise and playmaking ability were the difference in a 68-64 win Thursday at the HU Convocation Center.
“The guys have got heart,” HU coach Ed Joyner Jr., said. “I’ll give that to us, we’ve got heart. We’re going to fight back. Tonight, we just couldn’t overcome the deficit.”
The Pirates (14-16, 11-5 MEAC) cut a 20-point second-half spread to two in the final 75 seconds. But N.C. Central’s Jeremy Ingram and Ray Willis shut the door in a battle between the conference’s second- and third-place teams.
Both teams remained where they were when the evening began. In just its second season as a full, competing Division I program, N.C. Central (22-8, 15-1 MEAC) finished in second place, a game behind regular season champ Norfolk State. Hampton already had clinched at least a tie for third place and the No. 3 seed headed into next week’s MEAC tournament, which begins Monday.
The top three seeds receive byes into the quarterfinals and don’t play until next Thursday. If form holds, HU and Central are bracketed to meet again next Friday in the semifinals.
“It was very important,” Joyner said of the bye, “because if we hadn’t, I think we’d be playing on Monday and that isn’t enough time to get ourselves back together. We have time now to rest our legs and clean up some things that we need to clean up. But I think we need rest right now.”
The Pirates saw N.C. Central turn a five-point halftime lead into 20 with 12:35 remaining. The Eagles still led 60-44 with 6½ minutes left when HU began its final push.
“We always seem to play better when we’re down,” HU guard Deron Powers said. “It takes a little something to wake us up sometimes.”
Redshirt freshman Dwight Meikle was the catalyst, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half. His driving floater in the lane cut NCCU’s lead to 60-58 with 1:12 remaining.
Ingram’s cold-blooded 3-pointer from the left wing on an inbounds pass from Emanuel Chapman with 41 seconds to play and the shot clock under :05 provided the Eagles with breathing room at 63-58.
HU scored on its next two possessions, but Willis answered each by hitting 3 of 4 free throws for a 66-62 lead. Powers was stripped by Chapman on a drive with 15 seconds remaining, and the Eagles took possession, with Stanton Kidd hitting two more free throws for NCCU’s final points.
Kidd scored 15 of his game-high 24 points in the second half, most as the Eagles built the big lead. NCCU’s run coincided with foul trouble to HU’s Emmanuel Okoroba, the Pirates’ only true post player. With him on the bench, HU often settled for jump shots on offense.
“I think we just lost our head for a while,” Joyner said. “It happens to us probably once every ball game. Central’s an experienced team. They’ve got a lot of their guys back, a lot of their guards back. But we felt like we did have a comeback in us. I felt like our legs left us for a minute, and when our legs left us, we weren’t able to make any shots.”
The Pirates’ defense then fueled their offense. They held Central scoreless for nearly six minutes and scored on 11 of 12 possessions late, after missing eight of their first 10 shots of the second half.
Of Hampton’s 19 games since the calendar flipped to 2013, 16 were decided by seven points or less, or went to overtime. The Pirates were playing their third game in six days, but Joyner was convinced that his team could come back, despite the big deficit and all of the attendant emotion related to Senior Night.
“I did think we had another one in us,” he said. “I kept telling them: you’ve been there before; you’ve fought back before; you’ve done it before. We just couldn’t overcome it. But maybe this is a good lesson for us, going into the tournament.”