DAYTON, Ohio -- All North Carolina A&T needed was Cy Alexander. And all Cy Alexander needed was to return to the MEAC.
After not having a winning season since the 1996-97 season, A&T won four games in the conference tournament last week -- and then capped it off with the school's first-ever NCAA tournament win, holding on against Liberty, 73-72.
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“It feels great,” said junior guard Jeremy Underwood, who finished with 19 points. “We worked very, very hard. We were always believers in ourselves, and we kept working hard. It shows hard work pays off.”
A few months ago -- heck, a few weeks ago -- this seemed completely improbable. North Carolina A&T had lost four of six to end the regular season, dropping to 15-16 and a No. 6 seed in the MEAC tournament. Not that anyone would have been terribly surprised with a losing season. The Aggies hadn't had a winning record since 1996-97 and hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1995.
But that's not how Cy Alexander operates -- especially now that he's back in the MEAC, in his first season at NC A&T.
Alexander was one of the best coaches in the conference while at South Carolina State, leading the Bulldogs to five NCAA tournament appearances and seven trips to the conference championship game. Prior to his arrival, S.C. State had never made an NCAA tournament and had rolled off nine consecutive losing seasons.
Once out of the MEAC, Alexander wasn't nearly as effective, not having one winning season during his six-year career at Tennessee State. Back in the MEAC, though, Alexander knew he could win with the Aggies -- if he changed the culture.
“We talked about trying to win a championship for our seven seniors,” Alexander said. “When you're working with a group of guys that never won, they don't understand that every play is important.”
With seven seniors on the roster, something clicked during the conference tournament. Whether it was desperation or momentum, North Carolina A&T began defending, knocking down shots and making plays late in games.
And under the spotlight of the NCAA tournament, they weren't fazed.
“That's the kind of stage you wish you could play on every day,” senior Austin Witter said. “That's what you dream of.”
“We weren't nervous at all,” Underwood added. “We were moreso happy. It's been a long time.”
Alexander is back to his winning ways, and North Carolina A&T might be back to its own winning tradition -- after all, this is a program that reached seven straight NCAA tournaments during the 1980s.
“This run will be a boost for our recruiting, and a tremendous boost for overall student applications,” Alexander said. “Everyone is just elated about where the program has come in just one year.”
Alexander and coaching in the MEAC is a winning combination. And now, he can add winning an NCAA tournament game to his repertoire.
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