WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Reggie Holmes was off, Kevin Thompson was frustrated and Morgan State was struggling in its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference semifinal against Hampton on Friday night.
But when coach Todd Bozeman went to his deep bench, he got big contributions from unlikely heroes Ameer Ali and Joe Davis and the No. 1-seeded Bears outlasted Hampton, 74-67, to reach Saturday afternoon's final at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
All that stands between the Bears (26-9) and a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament is a weary South Carolina State team that needed overtime to beat Delaware State, 70-66, in the other semifinal. The Bulldogs (17-13) inflicted Morgan's only MEAC loss this season, 71-68, on Feb. 15 in Baltimore.
"We have tabbed ourselves as grinders," Bozeman said. "That's the definition of grinding. I'm glad we can move on. Twenty-six wins is a great accomplishment."
Foul trouble and frigid shooting put Morgan in a 32-27 first-half hole. The Bears went seven minutes without a field goal and more than five minutes without scoring.
Holmes, the MEAC's Player of the Year, had just three points in the first half and Thompson, the league's Defensive Player of the Year, drew a technical foul when he protested a noncall too long.
Into the vacuum came Ali, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, who scored 10 of his team-high 14 points in the second half. He picked up the slack inside when Thompson (seven points, eight rebounds) had to sit with three fouls and finished with eight rebounds.
Davis, meanwhile, subbed for a foul-hindered Sean Thomas at point guard and delivered 12 points and five assists.
"All year, I've been struggling with the plays," said Davis, a junior. "At midseason, coach said he was getting confidence in me."
Said Bozeman: "He's running specific plays, [not the entire offense]. He's learning how to play point guard, and he's growing into the position. He's playing much better defense on the ball than he was in the beginning of the year, and that allowed us to play him more."
After shooting 25.9 percent in the first half, the Bears hit 63.6 percent in the second half. And when it came down to it, it was a big triple by Holmes and two big plays by DeWayne Jackson that pushed Morgan past Hampton (13-18).
With 3:44 left in the game, Jackson (11 points) split two defenders on a drive down the lane to tie the score at 60. Moments later, he delivered a perfect pass for a layup by Troy Smith (12 points).
But after Hampton regained the lead at 64-62, Holmes buried his first field goal of the game, with 2:29 left, to put Morgan on top to stay. That triggered a 12-1 run that ended Hampton's season.
Holmes finished with 11 points, converting eight of nine free throws.
Afterward, Bozeman paid tribute to Hampton's Theo Smalling, the Pirates' captain who died in October of an accidental gunshot wound. And he paid tribute to Morgan's own Anthony Anderson, a 6-10 freshman from St. Charles, who is fighting leukemia. Anderson is in Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"I knew [the Pirates] were playing for something bigger, and I want to tip my hat to them," Bozeman said. "Our guys are playing for something bigger as well. We're playing for Anthony Anderson. He wants to go to the NCAA tournament. And these guys are trying to do the best they can to get him there."
Pellum 3-13 1-3 7, Simpson 3-9 3-4 11, Tunnell 1-5 5-7 7, Freeman 6-10 6-9 18, Lola-Charles 0-1 0-0 0, Tuitt 3-3 0-2 6, Funches 1-2 3-4 5, Morgan II 6-11 0-0 13, Reed 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-55 18-29 67.
MORGAN ST. (26-9)
Holmes 1-7 9-9 11, Thomas 1-8 3-4 5, T.Smith 3-4 6-7 12, Thompson 2-4 3-8 7, Ali 6-10 2-3 14, Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, D.Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Davis 3-7 6-8 12, Stokes 0-1 0-0 0, Long 1-2 0-0 2, Foote 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 4-5 2-2 11. Totals 21-49 31-41 74.
Halftime_Hampton 32-27. 3-Point Goals_Hampton 3-12 (Simpson 2-4, Morgan II 1-5, Pellum 0-3), Morgan St. 1-7 (Jackson 1-1, T.Smith 0-1, Holmes 0-2, Davis 0-3). Fouled Out_Simpson, Tunnell. Rebounds_Hampton 33 (Funches 6), Morgan St. 38 (Ali, Thompson 8). Assists_Hampton 6 (Tuitt, Tunnell 2), Morgan St. 14 (Davis 5). Total Fouls_Hampton 27, Morgan St. 27. Technical_Thompson. A_NA.