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Morgan State falls out of first place after rally comes up short against NCCU

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Morgan State played North Carolina Central in a battle for first place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference on Saturday. However, the Bears started slowly, struggled throughout the first half and despite coming back in the game's final 14 minutes, they could not catch the Eagles.

The Bears shot poorly in the first 20 minutes after North Carolina Central jumped out to a lead from the start. That early advantage, plus 17-point performances from Patrick Cole and Kyle Benton, helped the Eagles hold off Morgan State's late rally and post a 68-62 victory at Hill Field House.

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North Carolina Central (16-6, 7-1 MEAC) took over the top spot in the conference with the win. Morgan State (10-12, 7-2) slipped back to at least second place, with Savannah State having a chance to push the Bears into third place in a later game.

The Eagles scored the game's first five points, and Morgan State never recovered. North Carolina Central pushed the lead to 10 just over nine minutes into the game and held a 31-23 halftime lead after the Bears shot just 30 percent in that half.

"The first half, we didn't play well," Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman said. "Obviously, it was a big game, so I didn't [think] that we were ready. They might have been too excited for the game or feeling a little bit more pressure. I don't know."

The offense proved sluggish throughout the first half. Top scorer Tiwian Kendley led the Bears with 14 points, but didn't score until making a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left in the first half.

Morgan State spent much of the first 30 minutes settling for longer outside shots, a big reason the Eagles later stretched the lead to 47-30 with just under 14 minutes remaining in the game. After that, Kendley, David Syfax (11 points), Antonio Gillespie (10 points) and others began driving to the basket more against the more muscular Eagles.

That helped the Bears open up the defense and slowly cut down the lead. They whittled it to three four times in the final three minutes, but the Eagles always answered.

North Carolina Central went 7-for-8 from the free throw line in the final 2:04. Morgan State also appeared to get a break when the scorers accidentally added a point to their total. North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton noticed and complained about it, but it did not affect the final outcome.

Kendley said the Bears played a much better game in the second half, a key reason for the late rally.

"Everybody was just going hard and not playing scared and getting to the rim ... opening it up for everybody to score," Kendley said. "Everybody came together and played how they normally play."

Moton said the Eagles were not surprised by the second-half rally, where the Bears outscored his team, 39-37.

"We knew they were coming to fight," Moton said. "We knew they were going to make a run. We were fortunate to withstand [it]."

Morgan State also received some help from forward Phillip Carr. He finished with nine points and six rebounds in 29 minutes after missing the previous five games with a broken bone in his left foot.

He struggled on occasion, but expects to do better with more time on the court. Bozeman said the 6-foot-8 forward will give the Bears a lift once he settles back into a rhythm with Kendley.

"I just wasn't comfortable out there," Carr said. "I didn't have my full wind. The second half, I definitely got a little more comfortable and stopped thinking about my foot so much."

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