HAMPTON, Va. -- Hampton had a perfect opportunity in Thursday's regular season finale to showcase its season-long improvement against N.C. Central, which went into the night vying for a share of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season title.
However, the Pirates, while proving their mettle in the first half, fell apart during the first eight minutes of the second half. It was something that a late and furious rally couldn't cure as the Pirates fell 68-64 Thursday to the Eagles at HU Convocation Center.
Despite the win, the Eagles (22-8, 15-1 MEAC) will have to settle for second place in the MEAC as Norfolk State defeated N.C. A&T to finish with its first-ever regular season MEAC title and finish undefeated in conference play.
"Coming from where we've come from, it's huge," said Eagles coach LeVelle Moton of the team's first 20-win season in just its second full season as a Division I program. "I don't think anyone expected our transition from D-II to go quite like this."
The Pirates (14-16, 11-5) will be the third seed, and like the Spartans and Eagles, will have an opening round bye.
Stanton Kidd led all scorers with 24 points, including 13 during a 19-4 run over the first 8:25 of the second half to pull away, as the Eagles led by as many as 20 points.
"I think we lost our head for a minute," said Pirates coach Ed Joyner, Jr. "it happens to us probably once every ballgame, but Central's an experienced team."
The Pirates fought back, however, going on a late 14-0 run to close the gap to 60-58 with 1:12 remaining.
"We got cute and we got out of pocket," Moton said. "We were making behind-the-back passes, we were taking 29-footers and we just weren't disciplined for two minutes and now they make a surge out of it."
Jeremy Ingram hit a 3-pointer on the Eagles' next possession to give them a five-point lead, but Emmanuel Okoroba, who heated up in the second half, made a tough layup to cut the gap to 63-60.
"Jeremy typically makes big shots for us," Moton said. "He's our best player, so we're going to go to him in the clutch."
After Ray Willis made one of two free throws, Deron Powers hit a layup for the Pirates to cut the Eagles' lead to two.
Willis, though, was fouled on the Eagles' next possession and made two free throws, and Powers turned the ball over, effectively finishing off the game.
Du'Vaughn Maxwell and Dwight Meikle each had 16 points to lead the Pirates, with 14 of Meikle's points coming in the late second half flurry. Emmanuel Okoroba chipped in 15 points.
Kidd was the major factor in the Eagles' strong second half run, making 7 of 16 shots overall, though he went just 1 of 9 in the first half, most of those shots coming near the rim.
"I challenged him, and he came back and responded in the second half," Moton said.
But after the Eagles got the 20-point lead, it was what Moton said was his team's cuteness, and what Joyner said was his team's stepped-up defensive effort, that allowed the Pirates to rally.
In the midst of the 14-0 run, Meikle made 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to help the Pirates cut the Eagles' lead to 60-50 with 5:20 remaining.
Joyner said Meikle's play has stepped up in the last six to seven games.
"That's the young man we knew and thought we were getting when we recruited him," Joyner said. "If we're going to advance and do some things in the tournament, he's going to be key for us."
The Eagles shot 39 percent from the field (24 of 61), while the Pirates were 40 percent (23 of 58).
North Carolina Central took a slim 31-26 halftime lead after a highly contested opening 20 minutes.
Willis scored Central's first five points, including a long-range 3-pointer, and finished with seven first half points to lead the Eagles.
But the Eagles shot poorly in the first half, making just 31 percent from the field (11 of 34).
The Ramon Mercado-to- Maxwell combination sparked the Pirates early on, as Maxwell slammed three times in the first half, the second on an alley-oop.
For Pirates senior Aaron Austin, the game started where he left off Monday night. Austin picked up two fouls in the first 1:44 and spent much of the first half on the bench.
Joyner said the Pirates have confidence going into the tournament, despite the loss.
"You want them to have the confidence that they can beat and play with anybody," Joyner said. "I think they left out of her with that. Of course, I'd have rather had the win, but maybe this can be the lesson that they needed to learn to get them through the tournament."
Moton said he'll take the bye and extra rest as the Eagles focus on the conference tournament.
"We've just got to come out and continue to execute and play sound basketball and not get ahead of ourselves," Moton said. "The strength of this team is the team. ... We've just got to be tougher, especially next week."
NOTES: Three Hampton seniors played their final game Thursday at the HU Convocation Center: Wesley Dunning, Jasper Williams and Aaron Austin. ... This is the first time North Carolina Central has won more than 20 games since the 1992-1993 season, when they were still in Division II, LeVelle Moton's first season as coach.