NORFOLK, Va. -- They talked big before the game and after it. In between, they backed it up.
Morgan State didn't earn much respect during the regular season, as the Bears lost their first nine games and then finished in seventh place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. For the second straight year, however, coach Michael Holmes' team pulled a major upset of the second seed, as Morgan State outscored North Carolina A&T 14-2 in the last four minutes to post a 75-70 quarterfinal victory at the Norfolk Scope.
Morgan State (6-22) will play Florida A&M, a 78-73 quarterfinal winner over Delaware State, in tonight's 8 o'clock semifinal. According to Jarrod Smith, Morgan State's 6-foot-11, 300-pound freshman center and one of the Bears' eight Division I rookies, the opponent need not show.
"We are the best team in the MEAC, and we'll prove that," said Smith, who came back from a turned ankle that sidelined him for eight minutes of the second half. "Coach told us from the first day of practice that, talent-wise, we had the best team in the MEAC. People have been down on the whole team all year, down on me because I'm so big. When people were doing that, Coach kept our heads up."
Holmes had to sell the power of positive thinking to a team that lost its first nine games. When they were 1-13, the Bears were allowing 103.7 points a game. Morgan State has won four of its past seven games, however, and Holmes hopes that a bigger emphasis on defensive fundamentals didn't end with last night's game. North Carolina A&T (18-9) committed 27 turnovers, four in the last 2:11, and did not score a field goal in the last six minutes.
"Before these kids learned how to play defense, they had to learn how to protect the ball at this level," said Holmes, who predicted Wednesday that the Bears would knock off the Aggies. "We spent 90 percent of our preseason preparation on offense."
Terry Sellers, a junior guard who is one of only two Morgan State players who had Division I experience before this season, hit four three-pointers en route to 21 points. None of his younger teammates scored in double figures, but the assortment of junior college transfers and true freshmen came up big in the last four minutes. None proved bigger than Smith and Matt Burrell, an equally beefy forward who played last year at Hagerstown Junior College.
North Carolina A&T scored the last eight points of the first half and the first six of the second to take a 45-32 lead with 17:30 left. Morgan State slowly collected itself, but the Aggies still had a 68-61 spread with 4:06 remaining.
Burrell sandwiched two baskets around one by Sellers, and with the Bears down 70-69, he came up with a delicate steal, tip-toeing the sideline and shoveling the ball to Smith. One baseball pass later, freshman guard Phillip Downs was putting in the go-ahead basket with 1:22 left.
After a free throw by Sellers made it 72-70, North Carolina A&T set up Thomas Garner low on the right side, but his shot was
tipped by Smith, and the Bears held on for the biggest victory of Holmes' two years at Morgan State.
"This is sweeter than last year," said Holmes, referring to a 1991 quarterfinal upset of South Carolina State that was achieved by players from the Nat Frazier regime. "I've got a bunch of freshmen who have been counted out all year long, but it's been a fun season because they've been learning."
Smith, Burrell and freshman guard Obadiah Johnson had nine points each, and junior forward Michael Brewer and sophomore guard Downs had eight apiece.
tTC North Carolina A&T got a game-high 26 from senior wing Dana Elliott, but all-MEAC forward Jamaine Williams was charged with two fouls in the first three minutes and wasn't a factor. Williams, ,, who was the MEAC Rookie of the Year in 1989-90 for Morgan State and then transferred to the Aggies, was limited to seven points on 2-for-10 shooting and three rebounds.