WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Morgan State dedicated its season to a stricken teammate. Then the Bears went out and honored him by ensuring they'll end the year on college basketball's grandest stage: the NCAA tournament.
They claimed their second straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship by beating South Carolina State 68-61 on Saturday behind 18 points and 10 rebounds from tournament MVP Kevin Thompson.
League player of the year Reggie Holmes added 17 points for the top-seeded Bears (27-9), who shot 53 percent to overcome 20 turnovers and avenged their only regular-season conference loss by becoming the first repeat MEAC champion since Hampton in 2001 and '02.
Last year's title meant redemption for coach Todd Bozeman. This one has an even deeper significance for the program: to honor redshirt freshman Anthony Anderson, who was diagnosed with leukemia in October and stayed back in Baltimore for chemotherapy.
The players are wearing patches with his No. 4 on their jerseys, an idea proposed by Holmes. Before the Bears left for Winston-Salem, they visited Anderson in the hospital, and Bozeman said the player told him that he was getting out Monday and was planning to attend their NCAA tournament game -- as long as they made the field, of course.
"This is what he wanted," said league rookie of the year DeWayne Jackson, Anderson's roommate. "We were going to give him what he wanted."
Khalif Toombs had 15 points to lead the third-seeded Bulldogs (18-14), who were denied their first NCAA berth since 2003 after shooting 31 percent and committing 19 turnovers.
Morgan State held South Carolina State without a field goal for nearly 6 minutes and used a 13-2 run to take a 44-34 lead with 11 1/2 minutes left, then went 5 for 6 from the line in the final 2 minutes to seal it.
Seemingly every time the Bulldogs threatened to get back in it, the Bears dumped the ball into Thompson and let him do the dirty work underneath. Midway through the half, South Carolina State twice made it a six-point game -- and each time, Thompson responded with baskets in the paint.
"We just couldn't get stops. That was the bottom line," Bulldogs coach Tim Carter said. "I thought they did a very good job of going to their strengths, which is Thompson. ... We just couldn't stop Thompson down the stretch."
Jackson scored 12 points and Joe Davis added 10 for the Bears. Their next stop: another trip to the NCAA tournament, perhaps as a No. 15 seed again -- just as they were when they were routed 82-54 last year by Oklahoma.
"Blake Griffin worked [Thompson] over," Bozeman said, adding that his big man "worked hard all summer, and you see the results of it."
Playing in its third straight league title game, Morgan State entered with an unofficial RPI of 105.
The field of 65 has become familiar territory for Bozeman, who was named the MEAC coach of the year for the third straight season. He took California to three tournaments before resigning in 1996 amid an NCAA investigation.
Shortly after the buzzer sounded, the coach donned a championship cap and danced alongside the line of Morgan State cheerleaders.
"This is my fifth time, and it never gets old," Bozeman said. "Once you drink from that cup, you want to drink from it all the time."
South Carolina State snapped the Bears' 11-game winning streak by beating them 71-68 last month in Baltimore. Jason Flagler, who scored 24 in that game, finished with 12 this time on 4-of-13 shooting while Darnell Porter also scored 12 points.
"They messed up one of my goals -- I wanted to go undefeated in the MEAC," Holmes said. "They made us cry, and I told [teammates], 'This is our last chance to get them back.' "
For a while, South Carolina State looked tired -- and understandably so, after needing overtime to upset second-seeded Delaware State in a semifinal some 15 hours earlier.
The Bulldogs missed 15 of their first 18 shots while Morgan State used an early 16-5 run fueled by four 3-pointers to take its first double-figure lead, 20-10. But South Carolina State reeled off 11 straight points to temporarily tighten the game up.
"Anybody would feel a little fatigued after an overtime game, but we can't use that as (the excuse) for the loss," Flagler said. "It's not your body that comes into play. It's all mental. You can say we were fatigued, but it really was mental."