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Men's NCAA Tournament

Norfolk State, Texas Southern carry HBCUs into next round of NCAA tourney

MEAC and SWAC teams win games for the first time in same tournament

For historically Black universities Texas Southern and Norfolk State, the sweep of their opening games of the 2021 NCAA men’s tournament — marking the first time that teams from the SWAC and MEAC won games in the same tournament — proved to be two the hard way.

Texas Southern overcame a 10-point halftime deficit, and Norfolk State nearly blew a 18-point halftime lead. But both came up victorious — Texas Southern with a 60-52 win over Mount St. Mary’s, and Norfolk State with a 54-53 nail-biter over Appalachian State at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, on a night where both teams advanced to the field of 64.

The road for the two No. 16 seeds, from here, gets even more challenging: Texas Southern, the first team to win two First Four games, will face No. 1 seed Michigan on Saturday, while Norfolk State will play the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Gonzaga.

“It’s amazing that two HBCUs moved on tonight. For us, that’s the first MEAC win in a long time,” said Norfolk State coach Robert Jones. “I’m happy for the conference. I’m happy for the school, I’m happy for HBCUs.”

In the game that opened the tournament, Texas Southern got a chance to enjoy a proper celebration with the players dousing Johnny Jones with water after his first NCAA win as a head coach. It’s a moment that Texas Southern was denied after winning its Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship on March 13 as the team had to immediately travel to the airport — never returning to its locker room after the game — to catch its flight to Indiana.

“They drenched me. I’m actually sitting here soaking wet,” Johnny Jones said from the postgame podium. “But it’s probably one of the best feelings I had with cold water in a long, long time.”

Johnny Jones got wet because his best frontcourt player, John Walker III, got hot as he scored a team-high 19 points, including the first six by Texas Southern in the second half which the Tigers opened with an 11-0 run to erase a 30-20 halftime deficit. Walker, who hit 8 of his 14 shots, also grabbed a team-high 9 rebounds.

“John was incredible, and when he catches the ball inside, he has a knack for scoring,” Johnny Jones said. “I thought he was the big difference in the game. He was a matchup problem for our opponent.”

John Walker III (right) of the Texas Southern Tigers drives to the basket during the second half against the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers in a First Four game during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Assembly Hall on March 18 in Bloomington, Indiana.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The matchup problem for Texas Southern early was the play of Mount St. Mary’s point guard Damian Chong Qui, who scored 10 points in the opening half as he dictated tempo and created scoring opportunities for his teammates.

“[Chong Qui] got into a rhythm coming off screens,” Walker said. “The game plan [after halftime] was to change the tempo. We tried to get the game sped up, which is a game we can thrive in.”

The Tigers sped it up by going to a full-court 2-2-1 zone, pressuring Chong Qui and forcing the ball out of his hands. That defense helped limit Mount. St. Mary’s to 22 second-half points.

“We extended our defense and trapped him,” Johnny Jones said. “In the second half, we were a bit more aggressive.”

Texas Southern has been used to recent adversity, barely reaching the SWAC tournament final with a season-saving, game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer to send its semifinal game against Jackson State into overtime. The Tigers beat the two top seeds in the SWAC to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“We had been in situations of adversity so much during the year,” Walker said. “The main message after the first half was to not get down about being down.”

Next up for Texas Southern: Michigan, the No. 1 seed from the Big Ten that was a dominant team for much of the regular season. The Wolverines won’t be at full strength with the loss of Isaiah Livers, who is out with a stress fracture on his right foot.

But even without Livers, Michigan has a combination of size and athleticism unlike anything Texas Southern has seen this season.

Texas Southern Tigers guard Michael Weathers (left) dribbles past Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers forward Mezie Offurum (right) during the first half in the First Four of the 2021 NCAA tournament at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for us,” Walker said. “We’re just blessed to showcase our talents against a high-level team.”

That game against Michigan will be played Saturday. Until then, Walker can savor the moment of winning the second NCAA tournament game in school history.

“Me coming from Houston, I watched Texas Southern games growing up,” Walker said. “I’m Houston to the bone. This is the biggest thing in the world to me.”

In the late game, Norfolk State, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champions, came out on fire to take a 36-20 halftime lead behind the play of Jalen Hawkins, who came off the bench to score 20 points in the opening 20 minutes. Appalachian State missed all 18 of its 3-point attempts in the first half.

The Spartans led by as many as 19 early in the second half before experiencing a near-total collapse: becoming careless handling the ball, and going ice cold from the field. A 3-pointer from Justin Forrest with 7:45 left gave Appalachian State its first lead 46-45. That was in the midst of a 16-0 Appalachian State run, which set up a frantic back-and-forth finish.

Norfolk State guard Jalen Hawkins (right) reacts after scoring a 3-point basket during the first half of a First Four game against Appalachian State in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament March 18 in Bloomington, Indiana.

Doug McSchooler/AP Photo

Appalachian was in position to win the game at the end despite shooting 25.8% from the field and 16.7% from beyond the 3-point arc. Two potentially game-winning shot attempts by the Mountaineers in the closing seconds were off the mark.

Devante Carter’s two free throws that gave Norfolk State the 54-53 lead with 10 seconds remaining were his only points of the second half. Carter, who averaged a team-leading 15.5 points this season, finished with 4 points on the night.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.