Road to Final Four begins for Gonzaga against Norfolk State

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Top-ranked Gonzaga has reached the level where merely reaching the Final Four might not be considered a good enough NCAA Tournament run.

The Bulldogs begin dealing with the expectations as well as pursuing the school’s first NCAA championship when they face 16th-seeded Norfolk State (17-7) in West region play Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The Spartans advanced with a 54-53 win over Appalachian State in Thursday night’s First Four matchup. Norfolk State has won seven straight games and nine of 10.

As for Gonzaga (26-0), it is the first school to enter the tournament with an unbeaten record since Kentucky (34-0) in 2015. Those Wildcats — who had Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker — lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

The Bulldogs are led by the star trio of Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme and have won 30 consecutive games. The last 23 of those wins are by double digits.

But coach Mark Few is doing all he can to temper expectations.

“It started in November like it was national championship or bust,” Few told ESPN. “And I just think that misses the whole point.

“Other than like Tom Brady and (Bill) Belichick and LeBron (James), I’m not sure anybody else is worthy of having those type of expectations put on them.”

The New England Patriots did their share of winning, as do whichever NBA teams employ James. Meanwhile, the Zags have reached the title game once — when they lost 71-65 to North Carolina in 2017.

This year is viewed as their best chance to win it all. Adding to that belief is the fact they beat the second, third and fourth seeds in their region by a combined 46 points. All three games were played on neutral courts.

Gonzaga beat second-seeded Iowa 99-88 on Dec. 19, knocked off third-seeded Kansas 102-90 in its season opener on Nov. 26, and routed fourth-seeded Virginia 98-75 on Dec. 26.

Suggs can sense the national-title-or-bust feeling.

“It gives you something really high to chase, and it’s one of the reasons why I came here, because I know everyone’s hungry for a national championship,” Suggs said.

Suggs averages 14.3 points, 4.5 assists and leads the squad with 47 steals. Kispert, a first-team All-American, averages 19.2 points and has made a team-leading 72 3-point baskets, while Timme contributes 18.7 points and a team-leading 7.1 rebounds.

Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring average (92.1), so Norfolk State can expect a faster pace than what was on display in its win over Appalachian State.

Jalen Hawkins came off the bench to score a career-high 24 points as the Spartans improved to 2-1 all-time in NCAA Tournament play. The other win came as a No. 15 seed when the school notched a shocking upset of second-seeded Missouri in 2012.

“We know Gonzaga is like the Lakers of college basketball with three All-Americans,” Spartans coach Robert Jones said afterward. “We understand the task at hand, and it is going to be a tough task.”

Norfolk State held a 16-point halftime lead, but Appalachian State went on a 26-4 run to move ahead by six with 5:48 left. But the Spartans recovered to close the game with a 9-2 run.

“We were panicking a little bit,” said Hawkins, who scored 20 first-half points. “We weren’t expecting them to come back so fast. But our coach told us to stay positive and play defense, and that’s what we strive on.”

Devante Carter, who averages a team-best 15 points, made the decisive two free throws with 8.6 seconds left for Norfolk State. But Carter had just four points on 1-of-10 shooting from the field.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

1 Comment

SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

Getty Images

TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

Getty Images
1 Comment

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.