Nine years ago, Norfolk State pulled off a shocker in the NCAA tournament with an opening-round win over No. 2 seed Missouri.
For the Spartans, there would be no surprise against the 2021 tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, Gonzaga.
Norfolk State was competitive on Saturday night for the opening 10 minutes, but could not match the size and well-balanced play of the nation’s only undefeated team, as Gonzaga cruised to a 98-55 win to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Spartans found out the difference between beating a No. 16 seed (Thursday’s win over Appalachian State), and days later taking on the tournament’s top overall seed.
“The game speed was 1,000 miles an hour,” said Norfolk State guard Kyonze Chavis. “The ball was really moving. It was a reality when you got out there on the court.”
In defeat, the Spartans saw the end of their seven-game winning streak that included a victory over Morgan State in the championship game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament and a win over Appalachian State in the First Four game.
As the game came close to the end, Norfolk State coach Robert Jones gathered his players and told them to keep their heads high.
“You have an NCAA tournament win, and our coaches and players should be proud,” Jones said. “We did something that’s never been done in Norfolk history: win a regular-season and tournament title in the same season.”
Gonzaga, which averaged a nation-leading 92 points entering the game, had four players in double figures, led by forward Corey Kispert who scored 23 points while hitting six of his nine 3-pointers. The Zags (27-0) shot 55.7% from the field and 51.9% from beyond the arc.
Devante Carter and Chavis were the top scorers for Norfolk State with 12 points each. Jalen Hawkins, who had 24 points off the bench in the First Four win over Appalachian State, was held to eight points for the Spartans, who shot just 30.6% from the field.
The game demonstrated the wide gap between Norfolk State and Gonzaga, the 20th team to take an undefeated record into the NCAA tournament and just the third team in 30 years. Seven of the previous unbeaten teams went on to win a national title, and two more played in the championship game.
But the two historically Black college and university (HBCU) wins in the opening round — Texas Southern beat Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four before losing to Michigan on Saturday — should disprove the lack of respect that HBCU conferences generally receive during the course of the year.
Of the Division I conferences that played basketball this season, the MEAC entered the tournament ranked last (31st) in NET conference rankings, with the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) at 30th. The First Four wins by Norfolk State and Texas Southern came against teams from the Sun Belt Conference and Northeast Conference that ranked 18th and 21st.
“We didn’t have the best showing tonight,” Jones said after the loss. “But we showed we could compete with anybody mid-major in the country. We’re moving the needle, moving the program in the right direction.”