For a change, North Carolina Central wasn’t playing for a MEAC crown. But rival North Carolina A&T was, and that was all the motivation the Eagles needed.
NCCU will head into the conference tournament next week with some much-needed momentum after a 70-59 win over the Aggies. North Carolina Central also avenged a 70-64 Aggies win in Greensboro on Jan. 27.
The Eagles (15-15, 9-7) came into the contest on a three-game slide. A&T (18-13, 11-5) sat atop the MEAC, but were part of a five-way tie for the top seed for the tournament.
"Typical Eagle-Aggie," NCCU head coach LeVelle Moton said. "We respect them but we don't like them and they don't like us, and I'm certainly fine with that. We knew they were trying to come in and win a championship, it was obvious. But they can't celebrate in here, we can't allow that. All week the primary objective was to just fight, this was going to be a street fight with a basketball out there."
NCCU outscored the Aggies 44-33 in the second half as the Eagles were sparked by senior center Raasean Davis (21 points, 7 rebounds) and John Guerra.
Guerra connected on a rare four-point play to give the Eagles life and a four-point lead midway through the second half. On the next trip down, Guerra, who was a walk-on last season, knocked down a three from the wing, putting NCCU up 40-33. After two free throws by Davis, capping off an 11-0 run, the Eagles were in front the rest of the way – despite a few scares.
"I thought John Guerra was huge," Moton said. "I told him to shoot the basketball, that's what you're out there for. It got the crowd involved."
Guerra, who has started just nine games in his career, finished with 10 points and was 3-for-4 from three-point range. Guerra remembers last season when the Aggies upset the Eagles in Greensboro and rushed the floor. That's something that was in his mind leading up to this last home game at McDougald-McLendon Arena.
"I was just trying to never have that feeling again," Guerra said. "I really remember that and try to tell our guys this game is bigger than us."
Davis led the way in the first half for NCCU. He scored seven of the first nine points, as the Eagles jumped out on the Aggies, 9-2. Davis nearly had a double-double at the half (11 points, seven rebounds), and scored four in a row to pull NCCU to within three, 25-22, with 3:24 remaining before the break.
A three-pointer by reserve guard C.J. Wiggins pulled the Eagles to within one, 27-26, which is where the score stood at halftime. NCCU led by as many as five in the opening 20 minutes, but A&T went on an 8-0 run to take an 18-14 lead at the 7:39 mark. Wiggins, who scored 10 points off the bench said he got a lot of confidence from Moton, who encouraged him to shoot the ball.
"When Coach gives you that confidence and builds you and tell you to attack and do your thing, that mental block is gone," Wiggins explained. "You can do whatever you want, or whatever you can. That jumper was him just giving me confidence and it felt good."
The Eagles had five turnovers in the first half, and finished the first half shooting 31.4 percent from the floor after a hot start. The Aggies took their first lead, 15-14, after a long three from Amari Hamilton and led the rest of the way, going up 18-14 on the next possession after another triple from Hamilton.
The Eagles missed their first two shots of the second half, but scored four in a row to tie the game at 31. A dunk by Davis gave NCCU its first lead of the second half, 33-31. The Eagles also got a spark from freshman Reggie Gardner, who scored four in a row, following a pull-up jumper from Wiggins to give the home team a late 6-0 run for separation.
The Aggies managed to pull to within six points with less than one minute remaining. But Wiggins, the most experienced player on the Eagles' roster, was clutch, hitting a pair from the line with 50.9 seconds remaining. Pablo Rivas, the junior forward, iced the game with two more freebies down the stretch.
The game was payback for last season, when the Eagles traveled to Greensboro with the MEAC regular season crown locked up, and were upset by the Aggies, which gave A&T its only Division I win last season.
The Aggies came into the game at the top of the league standings, part of a five-way tie, but dropped to the fourth seed after losing to NCCU.