Norfolk State scrapes by Applachian State in NCAA play-in game

From the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference:

Box Score

Grant Halverson / NCAA

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — After being up by as many as 18, Norfolk State held on to defeat Appalachian State 54-53 in the First Four of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Thursday evening in the University of Indiana’s Assembly Hall.

The Spartans (17-7) advance to Saturday’s first round, where they will face No. 1 seed Gonzaga at 9:20 p.m. on TBS.

Jalen Hawkins led Norfolk State with a career-high 24 points off the bench, hitting four of his five 3-pointers. Joe Bryant, Jr., the 2021 Air Force Reserve MEAC Basketball Tournament Outstanding Performer, was the only other Spartan in double figures with 10 points.

“Resilience. That’s something we’ve been preaching all year,” Spartans head coach Robert Jones said. “We came back from being down 17 against George Mason early this year. That was a different type of adversity. This time it was adversity, up 16. They came and took the lead. And we fought back.”

The Spartans led 36-20 at the half, thanks to 20 points from Hawkins and the fact that Appalachian State (17-12) went 0-for-18 from 3-point range. But the Mountaineers opened the second half on a 31-9 run, taking a 51-45 on a Justin Forrest jumper with 5:47 left.

“This is a tournament of champions,” Jones said. “So 16 points is not really a big lead when a tournament of champions, because everyone has championship pedigree. But once again, I’d like to say kudos to my guys for relaxing and staying calm down the stretch when we could have easily folded, I think they got up four points.”

The two teams traded the lead several times in the closing minutes, and App State was up 53-52 after two Adrian Delph free throws with 1:03 remaining in regulation.

But the Spartans got two free throws of their own from Devante Carter to retake the lead, 54-53.

App State had two looks in the game’s final seconds, but both missed the mark.

Norfolk State has now won NCAA Tournament games in each of its two appearances; the Spartans also upset Missouri, a No. 2 seed, in the 2012 tournament. This also marks the first time a MEAC program has won an NCAA Tournament game since Hampton defeated Manhattan 74-64 in 2015.

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