BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - The Spartans dominated in a big first half before weathering a second-half Appalachian State comeback on Thursday evening, and in the end the Norfolk State men’s basketball team is still dancing.
In a battle of No. 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament First Four, NSU senior Devante Carter sank two free throws with 8.6 seconds to go to lift the Spartans to a 54-53 win over the Mountaineers at Assembly Hall.
Norfolk State was seemingly in control, going ahead by as much as 19 in the first half while still holding a 16-point edge at the break. But Appalachian State came back in the second, holding NSU scoreless at one point for nearly seven minutes to go ahead by six.
The Spartans, however, scored seven straight to take the lead back, and the teams traded two free throws near the end for the final margin. The Spartans got the win thanks in big part to junior Jalen Hawkins, who made four 3-pointers and shot 8-of-13 overall for a career-high 24 points. They picked up their second-ever win in the NCAA Tournament followed the 2012 upset of No. 2 seed Missouri in the first round.
NSU, now 17-7 overall, advances to take on overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday on TBS. Tip-off is set for 9:20 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Carter did not have his best shooting night, hitting just 1-of-10 from the field, but he was clutch at the line after Adrian Delph had made two free throws with 1:03 left to put the Mountaineers up by one. Both teams were one-and-done on offense after that, but ASU’s miss gave Carter a chance to run out on offense. He drew the foul, made both, and NSU held on as the Mountaineers (17-12) missed a pair of shots in the last few seconds.
That NSU had to sweat it out at the end came as a shock after the Spartans had their way in the first half. NSU took control from the start, thanks in large part to Hawkins’ 20 first-half points.
Junior Joe Bryant Jr. scored off the opening tip just four seconds into the game, and the Spartans eventually led 10-3 early on. Hawkins caught fire, hitting three 3-pointers to help the Spartans build a 19-11 lead. Still leading 19-15 a few minutes later, it was all Norfolk State after that. Or more specifically, Hawkins.
He had 10 more points, all during a 15-0 run for the Spartans that ballooned their lead 34-15. The only thing that could stop him was when he took a seat on the bench near the end of the half to get a breather. The Mountaineers did get a few points back, but NSU still lead 36-20 at the break.
Appalachian State shot 19 percent in the first half and was 0-of-18 from 3-point range. The Mountaineers made just 26 percent for the game while sinking just 6-of-36 from deep. Their overall shooting percentage ranks as the lowest by a team ever in an NCAA Tournament Opening Round/First Four game.
The second half, unfortunately for NSU, was a different story. The Spartans were still ahead by 16 after a 3-pointer from senior Kashaun Hicks, but during an eight and a half minute stretch, the Mountaineers came roaring back.
A 26-4 run during that time gave ASU a six-point edge with less than six minutes to go in the game. NSU did not score for six and a half minutes at the end of that run until Hawkins made a layup and Bryant followed with a corner 3-pointer to get NSU to within one. Senior J.J. Matthews sank a turnaround jumper in the paint with 3:06 to go for a 52-51 lead, and the only points the rest of the way came when each team made two from the charity stripe.
Bryant was the only other Spartan in double figures with 10 points and four steals as NSU made just 26 percent in the second half, 34.5 percent for the game. The Spartans did hit 7-of-18 from 3-point range.
Justin Forrest scored 18 points for Appalachian State as their only player in double figures, but like the rest of the team, he struggled at the 3-point line to the tune of a 3-of-11 night. Delph and Michael Almonacy combined to shoot just 2-of-22 from deep.
The Mountaineers did outrebound NSU 46-35, including +8 on the offensive glass. They made 15-of-16 from the free throw line and had 10 blocks.