Moton: Eagles must focus on Aggies, not the rivaly
All 3,116 seats in McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium for today’s matchup between N.C. A&T and N.C. Central had been sold before the sun went down on Wednesday.
The place has been known to hold 3,500, and today’s contest in the Aggie-Eagle rivalry (4 p.m., WNCU 90.7-FM) may be a candidate for that kind of capacity.
Pretty much any combination of A&T and NCCU is a spicy recipe, and the wonder is whether NCCU’s success this season has added any heat.
“Not really,” NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said. “I think as players and coaches, the No. 1 thing that we have to do in terms of a rivalry is just keep it in perspective. It’s not the championship. It’s pretty much for bragging rights. It’s an important game for us because it’s another conference game.
“We’ve pretty much kept it in perspective because we’ve allowed the rivalry talk to be who it’s between, and that’s the fans. That’s for the bragging rights and things of that nature, which we can’t control.”
NCCU (18-8, 11-1 MEAC) is second in the league standings, where position increasingly is important for seeding in the upcoming conference tournament. Only the winner of the conference tournament is assured of a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
A&T (13-14, 6-6), in the middle of the pack in the league, is heading to Durham looking to do what just one MEAC team has done so far, and that is overcome NCCU’s formula for success.
Savannah State handed the Eagles their only conference loss this season in a low-scoring 44-36 game in Georgia.
First-year A&T coach Cy Alexander has isolated the elements that go into NCCU’s team chemistry, but then there’s the matter of understanding how Moton is mixing what he’s working with.
“Their execution in close games has been exceptional,” Alexander said. “You have to give a lot of credit to Coach Moton for having his guys ready for late-game situations.
“They are a veteran team, and a lot of notoriety has to go to Ray Willis, Jeremy Ingram and Stanton Kidd. You throw those guys in with what is, in my opinion, one of the best floor managers, point guards in this league, and you’re going to be successful.”
The floor manager Alexander referred to is Emanuel Chapman, a junior from Raleigh Enloe who has 379 career assists at NCCU, putting him in second place in school history.
With another 31 assists, Chapman would take over as NCCU’s career leader.
“We basically have to go out (today) and play hard, play smart and we can’t make too many mistakes defensively,” Alexander said. “We’ve got to do a good job on slowing down Willis, Ingram and Stanton. We can’t make it easy for Chapman to get them the ball where they like it.”
Moton’s mind is on his other set-up man, sophomore forward Karamo “K.J.” Jawara (6-8, 220), who has been out of the lineup with an injured knee since Feb. 4.
“We’re missing a guy right now that you can’t look at the box score and determine the magnitude and the impact — the profound impact — that he has on this team, and that’s K.J.,” Moton said. “He’s the glue. He’s the point guard of the front line.
“He makes life easier, his ability to pass the ball. Whenever we’re on defense, his ability to communicate, it keeps everyone in their lanes; and without him, without that voice, there have been some defensive breakdowns.”
A&T has the experience to exploit NCCU’s gaffes, Moton said.
“They’ve been through the fire,” Moton said. “They’ve been through the trials and tribulations. Any scenario that MEAC basketball can present to them, they’ve seen. Our guys are relatively still young and inexperienced to MEAC basketball scenarios.
“Those kids have been playing together for three, four years. We still have several newcomers who are trying to figure it out, and that’s what we have to guard against.”
Aggie-Eagle basketball dates to 1930, and A&T has the upper hand after 140 games, leading the series 74-66. Over the past three years, NCCU has a 4-1 advantage.
“Make no mistake, we understand the magnitude of the game and what it means, and we understand there’s a different tension that comes with it,” Moton said. “But at the same time, at the end of the day, when you keep it in perspective, it’s another conference game, and that’s what makes it extremely important for us.”