Norfolk State draws Appalachian State in first NCAA tournament appearance in nearly a decade

David Hall, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

It was both the culmination of years of hard work and a huge dose of vindication.

And it was why Robert Jones could barely contain himself.

Norfolk State’s MEAC tournament championship, by virtue of its 71-63 win over Morgan State in Saturday’s title game at Scope, not only sent the Spartans to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012. It served to silence anyone who said the team’s eighth-year coach couldn’t win the big one.

“For me, it was a lot of emotion and a lot of years trying to get this elusive championship,” said Jones, who has guided NSU to the MEAC semifinals or finals six times in seven tries. “For me, it’s like finally checking all the boxes. Like my assistant coach said: What can they say now?”

The Spartans (16-7) learned Sunday evening that they will take on Appalachian State in Thursday’s First Four. The winner faces top overall seed Gonzaga.

NSU’s players and staff awoke Sunday already in downtown Indianapolis, the result of a quickly planned charter flight into the NCAA’s “bubble” a few hours after Saturday’s game.

Junior guard Joe Bryant, a Norfolk native who scored a total of 47 points in the Spartans’ two MEAC tournament games and was named the event’s Most Outstanding Player, said the occasion was especially momentous because it happened in his backyard.

“It means a lot to bring a trophy back to the city, the city that I’m from, the city that I love,” the former Lake Taylor High star said. “It just means a lot.”

NSU lost in the MEAC title game to North Carolina Central in 2019, the last season the event was held. The 2020 version was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic before the Spartans could play a game.

N.C. Central also edged NSU in the 2017 finals. It’s why Jones called Thursday’s 87-58 quarterfinal win over the Eagles a “revenge game.”

Thanks to a positive COVID test in top-seeded N.C. A&T’s program, the Spartans made it to Saturday’s title game without having to play in the semifinals, a twist Jones called “unfortunate luck.”

Appalachian State (17-11) won the Sun Belt Conference tournament with an 80-73 win over Georgia State in the title game last week.

In 2012, led by future NBA big man Kyle O’Quinn, the 15th-seeded Spartans famously upset second-seeded Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

That victory, one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, brought the program unprecedented attention. More than one NSU player has said in recent years that the school appeared on his radar as a result of the win.

Those days, Jones said, are over.

“We’re not going to be able to sneak up on anybody this time around, like we did last time,” he said.

The approach from here, Bryant said, is simple. And the goal extends well beyond Thursday.

“We’ve just got to come out and be focused and just try to do what we’ve got to do to try to make it to the Sweet 16, as Coach always talks about,” he said.

David Hall, david.hall@pilotonline.com.