It was halftime when Norfolk State assistant coach Robert Jones issued his challenge. He stood in the hallway outside the Spartans’ locker room, talking to a small group of players and chopping the air.
Playing second-seeded Missouri to a tie was a nice first-half story. But what if Norfolk State took it further?
“Twenty more minutes,” Jones said in that hallway, “and we can do something special.”
The Spartans did something Friday that won’t soon be forgotten, not in Norfolk, Va., and certainly not in Columbia, Mo. Norfolk State, a No. 15 seed that had never been to the NCAA Tournament, beat Missouri 86-84. It was the biggest upset of the tournament for a few hours, until second-seeded Duke also lost to a No. 15 seed, Lehigh. In one day, two No. 2 seeds lost. That had never happened before.
A school of nearly 7,000 students, Norfolk State is known mostly for its band and a high-energy dance team that, on Friday, helped to win over the crowd at the CenturyLink Center. The Spartans had the edge in the stands, and Jones had spotted a weakness when he scouted the Tigers.
Norfolk State center Kyle O’Quinn played two seasons of high school basketball before the Spartans became the only team to offer him a scholarship. Actually, played is too strong. O’Quinn was on the team for two seasons at Campus Magnet in Queens, N.Y. — they needed someone for tipoffs, and at 6 feet 8, he was the school’s tallest student — and played for one.
“It was either go home after school,” he said, “or go to practice.”
So he kept working. As a senior, he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds, later growing 2 more inches. Jones read about O’Quinn, contacted a few connections in New York and finally drove up to meet him. Neither Jones nor head coach Anthony Evans watched O’Quinn play, but they offered him a scholarship anyway.
“I had a good feeling,” Jones recalled.
Sure, O’Quinn was raw. But he had potential. He could shoot, post up and play defense. What he struggled with was shooting free throws. Against MU, though, that would only matter if the Spartans were in the game late in the second half — if Jones’ challenge had been answered. For that to happen, the game plan would have to succeed.
Jones said the coaches thought O’Quinn was better than Mizzou’s low-post players, Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe. If O’Quinn could score and get rebounds, that would open up perimeter shots.
Evans went for it. This was a team of faith and belief. Heck, it was only in Omaha because it won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament last week, the fourth conference sports championship this season for the historically black university in eastern Virginia.
“The year of the Spartans,” athletic director Marty L. Miller said Friday.
Players and coaches don’t often wind up at schools like Norfolk because they’re the most obviously talented or have been pushed forth with advantages. Life at small schools can be an uphill climb; the athletics budget at Norfolk State is $12.1 million, compared with $59 million at MU.
Spartans guard Rodney McCauley went to Southern Mississippi his first year, playing for Larry Eustachy, whose Iowa State team was the last of the previous four No. 2 seeds to lose to No. 15 seeds. McCauley, who transferred to a junior college before landing at Norfolk State, said Eustachy didn’t say much about that Cyclones team, which lost to Hampton 11 years ago. What can you say about something so difficult to explain?
Even Evans had doubters when he took the job with the Spartans. Evans had no experience at this level; some Norfolk State fans recoiled. Still, Miller believed in his choice.
“I had a feeling about him,” he said, and apparently that’s common at this school.
On Friday, the Spartans’ opponent had the talent, pedigree and expectations that Norfolk State lacked. Even President Obama picked MU to reach the Final Four — a prediction that guard Jamel Fuentes suggested later should warrant an apology call from the president — after the Tigers charged through last week’s Big 12 tournament.
But the thing was, this pieced-together group of players and coaches stuck to the plan. O’Quinn manhandled Moore, scoring 26 points and adding 14 rebounds. The Spartans’ perimeter play benefited; they made more than half their three-pointers. The band played. The dancers danced.
Before long, the crowd at the CenturyLink Center belonged to Norfolk State.
“Whoever the fans were — I don’t know who they were. I know we didn’t come with many, but I’ll be whoever’s team,” McCauley said. “Whoever wants to root for us, come on, jump on the bandwagon. We’ll take it.”
Time was passing Friday, and Norfolk State hung around. Fans bit their knuckles. Was it really possible? Could the first team in more than a decade — hours before Lehigh would join the ranks of the tournament’s most lopsided upsets — do as Jones had predicted and accomplish something that wouldn’t be forgotten?
“We didn’t have any pressure,” McCauley said. “We’re the 15 seed.”
Band members agonized as the seconds ticked away, as Mizzou put together its final comeback attempt, as an upset played out. Fredrick Williams, a Norfolk State sousaphone player, dropped his head as Tigers guard Phil Pressey made a three-pointer with 11 seconds left.
“My emotions have never been this high before,” Williams said, patting his chest.
McCauley made one of two free throws before the Tigers missed a shot and fouled O’Quinn. Assistant coach Larry Vickers had worked with O’Quinn on his free throws. The first one, with 3 seconds to history, bounced off the iron. So did the second.
“I said, ‘Oh, God,’ ” O’Quinn said. “I didn’t want to be the goat.”
Mizzou had fewer than 3 seconds to set up and shoot the game-winning three-pointer. After a timeout, Pressey took the ball upcourt.
“Don’t let these last 2.6 seconds break our hearts,” McCauley recalled teammate Chris McEachin saying.
Pressey jumped, shot the ball, and the crowd — which had been so lively — went silent. Williams, the sousaphone player, stared toward the opposite end of the court. Players hoped. Pressey’s shot bounced off the rim. It happened.
Again, they danced.