Chico Langston and Terrence Wright were not going to let it happen again.
Seven times during the regular season, Morgan State had lost by five or fewer points, twice to Florida A&M.; Last night in the play-in game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, the eighth-seeded Bears were facing the ninth-seeded Rattlers for a third time.
But, after Florida A&M; made a determined run in the second half behind sophomore guard Byron Coast (game-high 28 points), Langston and Wright carried Morgan State to a 70-66 victory before 2,860 at the Bears' Hill Field House.
The victory sends the Bears into today's quarterfinal against top-seeded Coppin State, which has won 35 consecutive games against MEAC opponents.
"It was a matter of pride. We were not going to let the last-place team [Florida A&M;] come in here and beat us at home," Morgan State coach Michael Holmes said. "It would have been a smack in the face."
Instead, the Bears produced the key blows in crunch time.
After Florida A&M; (4-23) came alive to score 11 straight points to take a 52-51 lead with 8:14 left, Langston and Wright rescued Morgan State (7-20).
Langston, who played all 40 minutes, scored a team-high 20 points, made seven of 12 shots, grabbed seven rebounds, added three assists and made all six of his free throws. Wright scored 11 points, nine in the second half.
They combined for 12 of Morgan State's final 15 points.
They also combined on the game's most crucial plays. With the Bears ahead 61-59 with a minute left, Wright stole the ball near midcourt, fed Langston after a nifty spin move, and watched Langston make a layup to give the Bears a 63-59 lead.
Then, after Gerald Jordan (seven points, 11 rebounds) made a foul shot to give Morgan State a 66-63 advantage, Wright stripped Coast, who had lost the ball momentarily preparing for a game-tying, three-point attempt. Once more, he passed to Wright, who beat everyone for the layup that gave the Bears a 68-63 lead with eight seconds left.
Coast made his third three-pointer to cut the lead to 68-66, and the Rattlers fouled Wright immediately. He made both free throws to seal the victory.
"We've let too many chances slip away already this year," Wright said. "That's the difference between us having a winning season and a losing season. All year long, we've had bad stretches on offense. But I made a promise to my man [Langston] that we were going to win tonight."
"He [Wright] is the best defensive player on the team," Langston said. "We play well together. What motivated us the most tonight is the lack of respect this conference has for us."
The Bears earned Florida A&M;'s respect early. Their man-to-man defense set the tone early, forcing the Rattlers into 1-for-10 shooting at the start. The Bears opened a 7-2 lead and frustrated All-MEAC center Joey McGear (two points).
After the Rattlers pulled to within 10-7, the Bears ran off 12 points, taking a 22-7 lead on a 15-footer by Terry Sellers (13 points). Langston then scored Morgan State's final six points of the half to give the Bears a 38-28 lead at the break.
Today, Morgan State will face a Coppin State team that routed the Bears in their last meeting.
"I remember when [Coppin State guard] Sidney Goodman told me that I have a good game, but we can't beat them," Langston said. "[Today] I'm going to make him regret those words."
@MEAC MEN'S TOURNAMENT
Coppin State (22-7, 16-0) vs. Morgan State (7-20, 4-12) Time: 1:30 p.m.
Outlook: The Eagles are the heavy favorites to win their third MEAC tournament in the past four years, and they should roll easily today. Coppin State features three first team All-MEAC players in Player of the Year Stephen Stewart and guards Sidney Goodman and Keith Carmichael. Stewart (18.1 ppg) is the conference's leading scorer and can do equal damage inside and outside. Carmichael (15.7 ppg) is the league's second-leading scorer, and has been among the nation's top 10 three-point shooters all season (3.7 per game). Goodman (14.6 ppg, 4.1 apg) is the league's premier point guard.
UMES (15-11, 10-6) vs. Delaware State (8-18, 5-11) Time: 3:30 p.m.
Outlook: Two years ago, UMES was in the MEAC basement. For the past two years under coach Rob Chavez, the Hawks have been the most improved team in the league. This season marked their highest conference finish in 20 years. The Hawks, who beat Delaware State twice during the regular season, are led by guards Dale Harrison (15.3 ppg, 3.1 apg), Terrell Harris (11.6 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Zack Allison (13.5 ppg) and F Kenya Mobley (10.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Delaware State looks to guards Andre Griffin (14.6 ppg) and Andrew Miles (15.3 ppg) and F Malcolm Musgrove (10.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg).
North Carolina A&T; (13-13, 10-6) vs. Howard (10-16, 7-9) Time: 5:30 p.m.
Outlook: There could be an upset in this one, since Howard causes problems with its size, particularly with 7-foot center Grady Livingston (8.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg), one of the nation's top shot blockers. F Art Crowder (13.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg) made the All-MEAC second team, and F Sean Turley (11.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg) helps the Bison inside. North Carolina A&T; averages 75.5 points a game, but the Aggies are also committing 19 turnovers a game. They have five players averaging in double figures, led by G Phillip Allen (15.8 ppg, 3.4 apg) and F Joe Bunn (13.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg).
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Outlook: South Carolina State faded late in the season, losing five of its last seven games, and could be ripe for an upset by Bethune-Cookman. The Bulldogs will likely go as far as guards Deon Murray (15.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Bernard Toatley (11.9 ppg) take them. The Wildcats made strides this season, winning more games this season than in their two previous years combined and matching their best MEAC record in school history. Forwards Lamont Parrish (11.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Richard Leonard (7.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and G Latroy Strong (9.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg) lead the way.