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MEAC Tournament Semifinals recap: North Carolina Central and Norfolk State advance to championship game

The clash of the top seeds is set.

NCAA Basketball: Norfolk State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 seed NC Central Eagles continued to coast through the MEAC Tournament, routing No. 5 Maryland Eastern Shore, 77-49, in the first semifinal on Friday.

Guard Patrick Cole turned in another strong performance, leading the way with 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He’s been the conductor of Eagles Express, which has routinely steamrolled opponents in tournament play.

NC Central (24-8, 13-3) opened with a 14-2 run before a clock malfunction delayed the game for 30 minutes. When play resumed, Maryland Eastern Shore (14-20, 9-7) settled in, appearing to be ready to play a tight ball game all night, cutting the deficit to 21-19.

That was as close as the Hawks would get the rest of the way.

NC Central ramped up its defensive efforts and senior guards Patrick Cole and Dajuan Graf went into attack mode.

“Coach was telling me and Dajuan to drive the ball,” Cole said. “Because any time a team goes on a run, the only way to stop the bleeding is to make a tough play.”

The Eagles went into a half-court 1-3-1 trap, which forced the Hawks into poor shot selection and creating fast breaks for NC Central.

The Eagles held Maryland Eastern Shore to just 29 percent shooting on the night, forced 15 turnovers, and showed they are well prepared to defend any style of play.

Norfolk State 68, Howard 53

In the second semifinal No. 2 Norfolk State Spartans claimed its spot in the MEAC title game with a 68-53 victory over the 11-seeded Howard Bison. The second half defensive performance from the Spartans broke open a game that was back-and-forth in the first half.

Each team used defensive sets that are only brought out in special circumstances. Howard ran a matchup zone that gave the Spartans fits in the halfcourt. Norfolk State (17-16, 12-4) opened the game going to a box one zone, in hopes of slowing down MEAC Rookie of the year Charles Williams. It appeared to be effective early on.

With his Bison (10-24, 4-12) trailing, Williams, who scored 14 points, made his first bucket at the 13-minute mark, fueling his own 8-0 run that spanned roughly two minutes. His energy spread through Howard’s offense, as the Bison shot lights out from the perimeter in the first stanza.

The second half was slim pickings offensively for the Bison. Norfolk State began using full-court pressure in the form of a 2-2-1 zone press. Howard was shaky with its reads, turned the ball over, and forced quick shots, playing into the Spartans’ hands. Offensively, Norfolk State began getting to the foul line and converting easy layups off turnovers due to the defensive pressure and multiple looks.

The half-court offensive execution improved for Norfolk State as it made an adjustment to counter that Howard tough matchup zone. The Spartans were swarmed by the Bison at the high post in the first half, causing poor decisions and turnovers. Using Jonathan Wade as a down screener on the middle zone defender, followed by the high post screening for Wade coming to the top of the key, this action created openings that benefited the Spartans. The middle of the zone was now open, high-low post game freed up, and driving lanes for the guards became smoother.

Jonathan Wade got going in the second half, leading all scorers with 17 points and seven rebounds, as one of four Spartans to score in double figures. Wade, along with Zaynah Robinson, who scored 16 points, boosted the defensive intensity which provided them many of their scoring opportunities.

The MEAC championship will feature No. 1 vs No. 2. Each team is fundamentally sound, has exceptional guard play, length in the front court, poise, and are stable defensively. Expect the game to be physical, somewhat uptempo, and changing in style frequently. Whoever takes home the crown will be the team who can execute its style of play.