NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Reginald Johnson Jr. figured experience gave Hampton an advantage in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game.
The Pirates, after all, won the championship last season, and South Carolina State hadn’t made it this far since a loss in 2010.
Still, it took Hampton until the last four minutes to take command.
“What helped us in this situation was the fact that we won it last year,” Johnson said after scoring 21 points with eight assists.
The Pirates pulled away from a 67-all tie with a game-ending 14-2 run to claim their sixth tournament championship with an 81-69 win.
“You get that taste in your mouth and you don’t want any other taste,” Johnson said.
Brian Darden led the Pirates with 22 points, Jervon Pressley added 14 and Quinton Chievous 13 as Hampton avenged a regular season loss to the Bulldogs on their home floor. The difference, both sides agreed, was that Pressley missed the first game, and was a force this time.
“Von just took over in the end,” said Chievous, noting that he finished with nine rebounds. “He was the key player to me because he hands down was a monster in my eyes, and him being consistent on the boards and scoring, that just pushed us over.”
Johnson had a huge impact, too, leading the finishing surge by repeatedly driving into the lane and scoring or dumping the ball off to Pressley and Chievous.
“I think Reginald is strong,” first-year Bulldogs coach Murray Garvin said. “He’s strong as three men out there. He just bulled his way in there and he’s got great body control. When you can dribble, pass and shoot, that’s what every coach wants.”
Eric Eaves scored 25 to lead South Carolina State (19-14), which was seeking its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003.
“These guys have been here before,” Garvin said. “You cannot go against experience and make some of the errors we had down the stretch.”
The game was tied at 39 at halftime and close until the final stretch. The Bulldogs used a 14-5 run opening the second half to take a 53-44 lead, but Hampton answered with a 15-4 burst to take a 57-55 lead. The margin was no larger than four until the closing run.
“The normal person in here would feel like the pressure was on us,” said Pirates coach Edward Joyner Jr., because Hampton was the defending champion and had been the team to beat all season. “We felt like the pressure was on them. You’ve got to continue to match us.”
Chievous put the Pirates ahead to stay with 3:45 to play, and Johnson followed with a pair of free throws. Gabriel McCray got the Bulldogs’ only basket of the final four minutes with 2:32 to play. But Johnson scored on a drive, fed Pressley for a basket and the partisan crowd started celebrating at Norfolk’s Scope Arena, about 15 miles from the Hampton campus.
S.C. State: The Bulldogs were outscored 27-9 at the free-throw line and outrebounded 39-28. … Garvin was voted the MEAC coach of the year.
Hampton: The Pirates’ bench was outscored 39-14. … The Pirates have only two players from Virginia — Johnson and reserve Devon Oakley — on their roster.
Hampton will play in the NCAA Tournament.