The Charlotte 49ers ended the nonconference portion of their regular season with what might seem to have been an easy 88-72 victory against N.C. A&T in Halton Arena on Saturday.
But it took a while for Charlotte (9-4) to put away the Aggies. It wasn’t until the 49ers clamped down defensively in the second half and got power forward Willie Clayton involved offensively that they could begin to think about the Conference USA schedule that will begin Thursday.
The 49ers (9-4) broke open a close game midway through the second half, going inside to Clayton (13 points, eight rebounds) and getting out on transition during the game-changing stretch.
Most of it was orchestrated by point guard Pierria Henry, who had had the game on a string. He scored a season-high 21 points (on 7-for-14 shooting) to go along with seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals, two blocks and just one turnover.
“Those stats are him,” 49ers coach Alan Major said. “He’s a stat-sheet filler. And when he gets a rebound, he starts our fast break. That’s great, because when your point guard gets the rebound, you don’t have to worry about an outlet pass to someone else.”
The 49ers, who ended with a 30-3 edge in fast-break points that was in part fueled by 29 defensive rebounds and 11 Aggie turnovers, went on a 27-10 run that ultimately broke the game open.
“We did a poor job on transition defense,” N.C. A&T coach Cy Alexander said. “We didn’t get back, and they were getting layup after layup.”
The other key was Clayton, who had just three points and three rebounds in the first half, which ended tied at 40. Charlotte made more of an effort in the second half to get the ball to Clayton, who entered the game averaging 11.9 points and 9.6 rebounds.
“I was just trying to find my way in the first half,” Clayton said. “In the second half, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go out and play.”
The 49ers got hot early, with Henry and Ben Cherry combining on four consecutive 3-pointers that gave the 49ers a 19-11 lead with 14 minutes, 14 seconds left.
The 49ers, who opened the game making seven of their first 10 shots, closed the half by hitting five of 16.
Charlotte shot 60 percent in the second half and 52.9 percent for the game (including 10-for-19 3-pointers). Henry and Clayton were joined in double figures by shooting guard Shawn Lester (13) and center Mike Thorne (12).
N.C. A&T, which has lost six straight, got 18 from guard Richaud Pack.
The victory sends the 49ers into Conference USA play next week with a road trip to Texas, where they will face Texas-El Paso on Thursday and Texas-San Antonio on Saturday.
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