The Spartans never really expected it to be that easy, did they?
Nine seasons after its inaugural — and historic — NCAA Tournament win, Norfolk State grabbed another, knocking off Appalachian State 54-53 in the First Four, earning the Spartans a date with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday. It was a result that seemed etched into the bracket after 20 minutes, and then very much in doubt in the final minutes.
When it mattered most, Devante Carter made the plays. The Spartans’ leading scorer was held to his lowest output of the season (4 points, 1-10 FG), but, after being fouled on a careening drive to the basket, hit two free throws with 8.6 seconds left to put the winning margin on the board.
The two free throws erased what would’ve been a magical comeback for App State.
NSU built a 16-point lead at halftime, which had gotten as high as 19 in the first half. A blowout seemed in the works after the Spartans held the Mountaineers to a frigid opening period. App State went 0-18 from three in the first half, and entered the locker room with 10 turnovers against just six made field goals.
On the other end, the Spartans had already gotten a career night from guard Jalen Hawkins. The junior came off the bench to make shot after shot in the first half, putting in four three pointers and scoring a career-high 20 points when the game was just half over.
But, that wouldn’t be the final story of the game.
The Mountaineers finally started putting the ball through the basket. A team that rode its three-point-heavy approach to a Sun Belt Tournament title began connecting from deep, as Justin Forrest (18 points, 3-11 3FG) shrugged off an 0-4 start from deep to help spur a 21-4 Mountaineers’ run that had them leading by six points with just under six minutes left.
At that point the Spartans certainly looked rattled, as their offense continually stalled on the perimeter and coughed up the ball. But as the App State comeback seemed to have become the narrative in Bloomington, Hawkins (24 points) hit a jumper to cut the lead to four with 4:52 left, which was followed by Carter finding Joe Bryant Jr. (10 points, 4 rebounds) for a three to trim the lead to one.
A clunky final three minutes finally led to Carter’s game-winning free throws. The Spartans were able to junk up App State’s final possession and contest potential game-winning shots by both Forrest and Michael Almonacy.
NORFOLK STATE TAKES IT! The Spartans move on to face Gonzaga in the First Round!@NSU_BBALL | #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/2MCBluM2Zk— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 19, 2021
The win capped a banner night for HBCU’s, as the MEAC and SWAC both won their First Four games in Bloomington courtesy the Spartans and Texas Southern, respectively.
NSU, of course, is no stranger to the March spotlight. The First Four game was the first time they’d been back on the NCAA Tournament stage since stunning No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012, a historic result they’d reached in the program’s first Division I NCAA Tournament game.
Now, they get an even meatier prize in front of them: the country’s overall No. 1 seed and lone unbeaten team.