DURHAM, N.C. – It was a celebratory scene in McDougald-McLendon Arena early Saturday evening. Fans gathered on the floor and players posed for photos. North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton even got some help from his family in cutting down the net.
The excitement was understandable, as the Eagles had just won their third Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title in four years, by virtue of their 13th straight win, a 78-63 victory over Bethune-Cookman. The party, though, would prove to be short-lived.
“It’s really important that we enjoy this victory, (that) we turn it around … but we also have to be humble enough to understand that we have more work to do,” said Moton. “We have to be able to embrace the ultimate goal of what we’re playing for, and that is two (goals) down and one to go, and that is the MEAC tournament (championship).”
The Eagles’ workmanlike approach helped them persevere through a somewhat slow start Saturday. N.C. Central (22-6, 13-1 MEAC) converted on just 11-of-30 first-half tries from the field, trailing the visiting Wildcats by a point at 18-17 at the 6:40 mark. The back-and-forth nature of the game continued until back-to-back Dal’vin Dickerson dunks inside of two minutes remaining stretched the Eagles’ lead from three to seven points, and ignited the announced Senior Day crowd of 1,622.
“I thought the critical point in the game was the last two minutes of the first half,” said Moton. “We were able to get some separation. We were able to disrupt their rhythm, as well as establish our own.”
That separation happened in a hurry, as a 14-0 Eagle run in a two-minute, 46-second span early in the second half spaced the NCCU lead to 17 and staggered the visiting side. Guard Rashaun Madison notched eight straight points during that burst, turning a Patrick Cole assist into a layup prior to dropping back-to-back triples.
“He opened the game up,” said Cole of Madison’s stretch. “Coach talked about this team, and he said they were going to play a heavy dose of box-and-one on me. Obviously, when a team’s playing box-and-one, you need other guys to step up. He opens the floor for us when he’s making shots, definitely.”
Bethune-Cookman (7-21, 4-10) found themselves down by as many as 20 as the second half ensued, and the Wildcats strung together a 10-2 run to knife the Eagle margin to 12. A Quinton Forrest bucket countered two Eagle conversions to again drop the lead to a dozen, but four straight points from Dajuan Graf preceded a Madison trey and Dickerson layup that sealed the second of Moton’s stated goals, a MEAC regular-season crown.
Bethune-Cookman guard Diamante Lewis paced the Wildcats with 17 points and six rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting. Jeffrey Altidort added 14 in 27 minutes off the bench, while Forrest tallied 10.
Dickerson recorded one of two Eagle double-doubles in the contest, scoring 20 points and collecting 11 boards. Madison added 17, with Graf scoring 14 and Cole finishing with the other double-double. The redshirt senior recorded 11 of his club’s 20 assists, to go along with 13 points.
Dickerson recounted after the game the humility instilled in his team by his coach. “He’s said it like 30 times a day. He let us know that we [haven’t] won [anything] together, we [haven’t] won [anything] in life, so let’s start winning.” The redshirt senior took a moment to enjoy the victory, then said, “We’re going to put this behind us, enjoy it for the time being, then focus on Monday, because we’ve got a good Savannah State team coming in.”
Cole echoed those sentiments.
“This feels good, but personally, and I think my team … we’ll take this all day, but winning that conference tournament is really what we’re focused on,” said Cole. “This feels good and great, but when we get out of here from today and start tomorrow, it’ll be focusing on winning those two games and going ahead into the conference tournament.”
The first of those two remaining games for North Carolina Central takes place Monday evening, as Savannah State visits McDougald-McLendon Arena. That game is slated for a 7:30 p.m. (Eastern) tip. Bethune-Cookman also returns to MEAC action at 7:30 p.m. Monday, traveling to the Corbett Sports Center in Greensboro, N.C. to take on North Carolina A&T.
N.C. CENTRAL 78, BETHUNE-COOKMAN 63
BETHUNE-COOKMAN (7-21, 4-10 MEAC): Tabb 3-13 1-2 8, Manzie 0-0 0-0 0, Lewis 8-12 0-0 17, Forrest 4-16 1-2 10, Baker 1-6 4-4 6, Salaam 0-0 0-0 0, Harris 0-1 0-0 0, Altidort 6-14 0-0 14, Smith 1-1 0-0 2, Suggs 3-3 0-0 6. Totals 26-66 6-8 63.
N.C. CENTRAL (22-6, 13-1): Dickerson 9-13 2-3 20, Benton 3-6 0-4 6, Madison 6-13 0-0 17, Graf 2-11 10-10 14, Cole 5-14 0-0 13, Wiggins 0-0 0-0 0, Rivas 4-4 0-0 8, McAllister 0-0 0-0 0, Trapps 0-1 0-0 0, Wolfe 0-0 0-0 0, Ransom 0-0 0-0 0, Guerra 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-62 12-17 78.
Halftime — N.C. Central 28-23. 3-Point Goals—Bethune-Cookman 5-25 (Tabb 1-10, Lewis 1-3, Forrest 1-6, Baker 0-3, Altidort 2-3), N.C. Central 8-24 (Dickerson 0-2, Madison 5-12, Graf 0-3, Cole 3-6, Trapps 0-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — N.C. Central 44 (Benton 13), Bethune-Cookman 33 (Lewis 6). Assists — N.C. Central 20 (Cole 11), Bethune-Cookman 7 (Lewis 4).Total Fouls — Bethune-Cookman 14, N.C. Central 11. Technical — Ransom (NCCU). A — 1622.
Points in the Paint — N.C. Central 38, Bethune-Cookman 36. Points off Turnovers —N.C. Central 20, Bethune-Cookman 17. Second-Chance Points — N.C. Central 21, Bethune-Cookman 16. Fast Break Points — N.C. Central 12, Bethune-Cookman 10. Bench Points — Bethune-Cookman 22, N.C. Central 6.