BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Devante Carter made two free throws with 8.6 seconds remaining and Norfolk State held on to beat Appalachian State 54-53 on Thursday night in the First Four after blowing an 18-point second-half lead.
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Spartans completed a sweep by historically Black colleges and universities on the first day of NCAA Tournament play, joining Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Texas Southern, which beat Mount St. Mary’s. Norfolk State advanced to face top overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday.
Beating the powerful Bulldogs will require big-time shooting improvement from the Spartans, who won despite making just 26% in the second half and hitting 35% overall. But they made clutch baskets down the stretch and against the nation’s top team.
“Survive and advance, and that exactly what we did,” Norfolk State coach Robert Jones said. “We knew that that Appalachian State wasn’t going to go away. They came back from a big deficit earlier in the season to another opponent. Then we went cold, and they got hot and made it a basketball game.”
Jalen Hawkins scored 20 of his career-high 24 points off the bench before halftime for the Spartans (17-7), who earned their first tournament win since upsetting No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012. The junior guard near perfect in the first 20 minutes, making 6 of 7 shots and all four 3s as Norfolk State built a 19-point lead.
Hawkins cooled a little after the break but made a key layup during the Spartans’ late rally.
“We were kind of panicking a little bit because we weren’t expecting them to come back so fast,” Hawkins said. “Our coach told us to stay positive, play defense, that’s what we strive on. We knew we had to play defense from the jump.”
Justin Forrest had 18 points for App State (17-12), which shot 27% and missed its final 10 attempts.
The Mountaineers pushed ahead 51-45 on Forrest’s layup with 5:48 remaining, but its only points after that were two free throws by Adrian Delph with 1:03 left that made it 53-52. Carter, who shot 1 of 10 from the field, answered by making his only two free-throw attempts of the game. App State missed two late shots on its final possession, a 3-pointer by Michael Almonacy followed by Forrest’s jumper as time expired.
“It was designed for a back cut for Forrest,” App State coach Dustin Kearns said. “We were lifting everybody up and we wanted to sprint up Justin Forrest with a back cut. They made the entry (pass) very difficult and it became a broken play. I thought the 3 was down, but that was what we were trying to get, Justin on a back cut.”
Jones was still trying to digest his team’s tense win to grasp the fact that two HBCUs won on the same night, and even on the same floor just hours apart in Indiana’s Assembly Hall.
“I mean, it’s amazing that two HBCUs moved on tonight,” he said. “Honestly, there’s been a lot of teams that got to the tournament but haven’t got a win. And we were able to get a MEAC win.
“I’m happy. I’m happy for the conference. I’m happy for the school. I’m happy for the young men in that locker room. And I’m happy just to have HBCUs.”
Norfolk State: Hawkins and the Spartans made shots and set the tone in the first half that had App State on its heels. Just as quickly, they lost focus and the lead before recovering.
Appalachian State: It couldn’t have started any worse for the Mountaineers, who missed all 18 3-pointers in the first half and were 6 of 36 overall. Just like that, they awakened appeared to take control before missing shots down the stretch that could have sealed an emotional victory.
“It will take a minute to get over this one,” Forrest said. “We just wish we could have this one back, man. We all feel like we accomplished a lot but we just wish we could have this one back.”