NORFOLK, Va. -- Morgan State returned to reality last night, as the Bears' giant-killing days at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament were ended by Florida A&M, 74-69.
In Thursday's quarterfinals, seventh-seeded Morgan State scored 14 of the last 16 points to knock off regular season co-champion North Carolina A&T, but another upset bid was turned back by Florida A&M. The Rattlers will shoot for their second straight tournament title and NCAA berth in tonight's (7:30 p.m., ESPN) championship game against top-seeded Howard, which held off South Carolina State, 76-73, in the other semifinal.
In a first half in which it dug itself a 14-point deficit, Morgan State (6-23) showed little of the energy or intelligence it had displayed in the quarterfinals. The Bears came out relaxed after halftime, however, and rattled the Rattlers, who helped the Morgan State cause with some inept free-throw shooting.
Florida A&M (16-13) came out sluggish in the second half, and the Bears quickly cut a 40-27 deficit to 42-36. They came to within one on four different occasions, the last at 61-60 on Terry Sellers' basket with 4:21 left, but Morgan State was ultimately undone by the same free-throw-shooting problems that the Rattlers experienced in the first half.
The Bears were 2-for-8 -- Phillip Downs was 2-for-6 -- at the line after Sellers' basket. In the second half, theyw were 6-for-18. That shaky shooting allowed Florida A&M to go on an 11-2 spurt that finally put away a pesky Morgan State team that has eight players in their first Division I season.
"We've improved all year, but I don't think we played well at all tonight," Morgan State coach Michael Holmes said. "At one point we looked disorganized, and we were trying hurry the game against a team we needed to slow down. Still, I enjoyed it."
Florida A&M got a game-high 19 points from sophomore guard Darrell Williams, as Morgan State effectively shut off the Rattlers' potent transition game in the second half. Reginald Finney had 16 points and five assists, and DeLon Turner had 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Morgan State, which lost two regular season games to Florida A&M by a combined 49 points, made only 36.4 percent of its shots in the first half. The Bears warmed up in the second, as Sellers finished with 11 and freshman guards Downs and Brandon Parker (Randallstown) had 10 apiece. Junior forward Michael Brewer had nine points and 10 rebounds, and freshman guard Obadiah Johnson had eight points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Morgan State doesn't have veterans as experienced and talented as Turner and Finney, but second-year coach Holmes vows to develop players of that caliber. As an assistant coach at A&M, he recruited those MEAC first-team all-stars to Tallahassee.
Turner, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior forward, is the MEAC Player of the Year, and Finney is a 6-5 senior who plays wherever he's needed. Together, they fueled a first-half spurt that would have buried Morgan State had the Rattlers been able to make free throws at a competent rate. Easy transition baskets allowed them to make 17 of 33 field goal attempts in the first half, but they were 5-for-15 at the line. They improved slightly in the second half, making 12 of 23.
The Bears led 5-0 in the first minute, but the Rattlers scored the next seven points and then used a 10-0 run to go up 30-16 with 5:32 left in the half.