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Inside Norfolk State’s perfect weekend at the Chris Paul HBCU Challenge — Andscape

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LAS VEGAS — It’s 5 a.m. on Friday and Norfolk State basketball coach Robert Jones desires a few more hours of sleep. But there’s a 5:30 a.m. national television hit to do, which would be fine if not for the 13-hour travel day from Norfolk, Virginia, to Las Vegas — via Baltimore — that concluded with him getting to his MGM Grand hotel room just past 1 a.m.

“I’m exhausted,” Jones said, following the television appearance that lasted all of four minutes. “But I’m a team player. I’ll do whatever it is I need to do for national exposure of our program.”

That exposure is the reason why Norfolk State came to Las Vegas, one of four teams playing in the Boost Mobile HBCU Challenge held Dec. 17 and Dec. 18 that’s hosted by Phoenix Suns guard — and now HBCU graduate — Chris Paul. This is Norfolk State’s second year in the event, after playing in the inaugural HBCU Challenge in Phoenix last year.

“We won both games last year,” Jones said. “So, Chris Paul said, since you’re undefeated, you might as well come back.”

It makes sense as the Spartans, participants in the last two NCAA tournaments and the two-time defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champions, enter the challenge as not only a premier basketball team from a historically Black college or university (HBCU) this season but one of basketball’s best mid-majors. Norfolk State began the season ranked No. 20 in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25 poll after ending last season ranked No. 16 (24-7 for the 2021-22 season) with Jones winning the 2022 Hugh Durham Award as the top Division I mid-major coach.

“Being ranked in the mid-major poll is important because a lot of times people look at HBCUs in a separate box — there’s Division I, Division II and then HBCUs,” Jones said. “Don’t get me wrong, we carry our HBCU status with pride. But don’t put us in an HBCU box when we’re no different than anyone else.”

Andscape was embedded with the team during the HBCU Challenge. Jones allowed access to practices, team meals and all the activities the team was involved in over the weekend.

For most of the players, this was their first trip to Las Vegas, an often-overwhelming destination for even the most seasoned travelers. On the front end of four days in a place called Sin City — the Spartans will have an extra day in town on Monday before flying to Reno for a game Wednesday at Nevada — Jones delivered a message during the team’s first meeting in the city constructed on the backs of losers.

“We’ll have our fun on the back end after we get these two wins,” Jones said. “So go out, do your job so we can be great.”

Norfolk State Basketball player Joe Bryant Jr. takes in the view from his room at the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

Saeed Rahbaran for ESPN

The beauty of sports is that it can introduce participants to places they might not normally visit. 

In the case of senior guard Joe Bryant Jr., the HBCU Challenge has delivered him to Las Vegas for the first time. So, after the Friday morning practice, Bryant, the reigning MEAC Player of the Year, returns to his room and excitedly pulls on the chains to open the roller curtains and blackout shades of his hotel room window.

The expectation: a view of the famous Las Vegas Strip he’s seen on social media and on the big screen.

The reality from his fourth-floor room: a straight-on view of a wall with a staircase running to the top of the adjacent five-story building. Off to the right, a teaser view of the side of the MGM (and in the distance, if you strain, a tiny portion of the roller coaster circling the New York-New York hotel across Las Vegas Boulevard).

On Let’s Make a Deal, they’d call this curtain reveal a “zonk.”

“Not what I expected,” Bryant said, disappointed with his view from one of the nearly 7,000 rooms that makes up the largest single hotel in the world.

 Christian Ings, Bryant’s roommate and backcourt mate, agreed. 

“There’s so much left to be seen,” Ings said. “Had we been on the sixth floor, we could have seen it all.”

The roomies, who have managed to strew gear all across their room in the few hours they’ve been in town, take the view in stride.

This trip is not about room views, it’s about taking care of business.

Combined, Ings and Bryant make up the most talented backcourt in the MEAC. 

Individually, there couldn’t be more of a contrast.

Bryant has an old-school look (his beard and closely cropped hair gives him an uncle vibe), and his listed 6-foot-1 height is the product of someone being overly generous. Athleticism? Let’s just say that Bryant was able to complete a two-handed dunk at the start of practice Dec. 16 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena only after leaping into the arms of his teammates, who collectively lifted him to the rim, where he hung on for a prolonged period.

“Just wanted to loosen the rim up a little,” said Bryant who, while he’s not going to outjump you, is a cold-blooded assassin shooting the ball.

Ings, who stands a legit 6-foot-2, is a high-energy southpaw point guard capable of putting opponents on a poster if given the slightest of openings.

A junior from Philadelphia, Ings transferred to Norfolk State after two seasons at Rider University. His teammates call him “Philly”; he’d rather you call him by his self-proclaimed nickname.

Agent Zero.

“I was a sophomore on the high school basketball team and got the last pick of jerseys,” Ings said. “When it was my time, I kept swiping through the box to the one medium jersey that fit me, zero. So I gave myself the Agent Zero name.”

Which Ings applied to his social media posts, which he said resulted in a comment from the original Agent Zero.

“I had no idea [former NBA player] Gilbert Arenas went by that name,” Ings said. “When he made a comment on that post, that’s when my friends told me his nickname.”

The message from Arenas?

“Go get ’em, young agent.”

Norfolk State guard Christian Ings sits in the locker room after cutting his lip and chipping his tooth during a game against Hampton University during the Boost Mobile Chris Paul HBCU Challenge on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas.

Saeed Rahbaran for ESPN

It takes 20 minutes — covering 15 miles along Interstate 64 — to drive from Hampton University to Norfolk State University.

It took both teams traveling nearly 2,500 miles — on the same Southwest Airlines flights — to play the first of their two games this season.

Rivals. Fierce rivals. Even though the two schools no longer compete in the same conference (Hampton left the MEAC in 2017 and now plays in the CAA), they still play every season.

The games between players who know each other well — and who want to maintain bragging rights in the Hampton Roads area — are usually heated, which is why Jones urged his team to treat it like any other game.

“Let’s not let the emotions get the best of you,” Jones said. “We are the better team. Let’s go out there and prove we’re the better team.”

As the Spartans exit the tunnel toward the floor, they are greeted by none other than Metta World Peace, who’s serving as an ambassador for the weekend. The Spartans led by as many as 11 points in the first half featuring a lot of insults before Hampton closes to 38-32 at the break.

Then Ings finds his opening early in the second half as the trail man on a 3-on-2 break. Caheim Brown delivers a perfect assist to Ings, who takes flight.

”I took off like an airplane,” Ings said. “Apparently, I didn’t have any landing gear.”

Ings dunked with two hands. But the momentum from the burst of speed on takeoff and momentum left his legs swinging forward as he attempted to hang on the rim.

“I felt my fingers starting to uncurl from the rim,” he said. “And I was like ‘OK, I’m in trouble.’ ”

Ings fell headfirst, his chin hitting the hardwood with a horrific thud. As a tooth flew toward the court, and his bottom lip started bleeding, his teammates — sitting just a few feet away — fans and those watching on television were mortified.

“I tried to stand up,” Ings said. “When they tried to pick me up, nothing was working.”

Ings dunk put Norfolk State up seven, but the Spartans appeared rattled losing their starting point guard and briefly lost the lead. But Bryant scored 16 points in four minutes in the second half — making five 3-pointers as Norfolk seized control of a tight game. Bryant ended the game with 23 points and 14 rebounds, and senior forward Kris Bankson (15 points, four blocks) dominated the paint to lift the Spartans to a decisive 78-66 win.

After the game, Bryant walked, phone in hand, from locker to locker showing the video of the play where he nutmegged a defender leading to a monster dunk by Bankston.

While the team celebrated around him, Ings sat in his locker in recovery mode. He returned to the sideline for the final minutes of the game and during the course of cheering his teammates on, he lost another portion of his shattered top tooth. “My head is still spinning,” Ings said.

He then smiled, revealing the extent of his injury to his tooth and the deep gash in his bottom lip.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Dentist is gonna have me right in about a week.”

From left to right: Norfolk State guard Terrance Jones meets with his grandmother Elise Day, mother Ebonie Day and great-aunt Dora Paulus after the Spartans defeated North Carolina A&T at the Boost Mobile Chris Paul HBCU Challenge on Dec. 18 in Las Vegas.

Saeed Rahbaran for ESPN

As the players returned to their rooms on Dec. 16 — that first full day in Las Vegas — they came across a DJ playing tunes near a roulette table.

Spartans guard Terrance Jones, with Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” blasting from the speakers, saw an opportunity to bust a move.

At the time, that might have been the most action he expected to get during the weekend as the 6-3 sophomore guard had picked up little playing time in the first nine games. But with Ings injured, Jones, as the next man up, harassed the Hampton guards in a season-high 21 minutes.

“He gets up in people in practice and it becomes annoying at times,” Jones said. “He actually did to somebody else and, while that was annoying for them, it was good for us.”

On Sunday, Jones was even better. Coming off the bench to go up against North Carolina A&T’s explosive point guard Kam Woods, a three-time Alabama player of the year in high school, Jones was a constant pest defensively. Williams missed nine of 15 shots, had his second-lowest point total of the season (15) and shied away from handling the ball against the constant pressure from Jones who played a season-high 33 minutes.

“The coaches told me my defense would change the whole momentum of the game, and that’s what I did,” Jones said. “It feels good to finally show what I can do.”

Teammate Dana Tate Jr. showed what he could do last season when he was a dominant force in the MEAC tournament, helping him earn third-team preseason All-Conference honors in October. But Tate, who previously played at Rhode Island, had been largely inconsistent this season.

Until Sunday.

With North Carolina A&T putting its defensive focus on Bryant, Tate found himself with tons of space and opportunity. His 3-pointer seven minutes into the game gave Norfolk State its first lead in what turned out to be a monster game for Tate, who finished with a career-high 24 points in a hard-fought 70-66 win.

The 2-0 weekend that improved Norfolk State’s record to 9-4 resulted in a wild locker room danceoff. Jones cued up his own music and busted a move.

Tate’s arrival got him celebrated and doused with water by his approving teammates.

“I’ve struggled this season, but knowing that my teammates and my coaches have faith in me and for moments like this, it feels good to play at the level that I know I should be playing,” Tate said. “I’ve had a tough first third of the season, but there’s still two-thirds to go.”

After a first third of the season where he’s had to exercise patience, Jones hopes that his solid weekend in Las Vegas — in front of his mother, grandmother and aunt — solidifies a spot in the rotation for the remainder of the season.

“I don’t need to prove I can score on this team, we have that,” Jones said. “I’m going to go out each night and try to do the things we’re missing, the things defensively that can help this team win.”

Norfolk State basketball players hit golf balls at Top Golf on Dec. 16 in Las Vegas.

Saeed Rahbaran for ESPN

The College Insider Mid-Major Top 25 was released on Tuesday, led by Gonzaga (if you consistently compete for national championships, are you still mid-major?).

Norfolk State? Nowhere to be found, even though three of the team’s four losses have come in road games at then top-ranked Houston, then No. 5 Baylor, and then No. 8 UCLA. 

For comparison, the four losses for Towson, No. 18 in the mid-major poll, have come in neutral court games against Northern Iowa (4-7), Fairfield (1-4 at the time), a road loss at unranked Clemson, and a home loss in overtime to Navy.

That box that HBCUs are placed in, which Jones referred to earlier? While Norfolk State faced tough competition over the weekend in wins over Hampton and North Carolina A&T, those victories probably fell flat to poll voters because of the lack of respect for HBCUs.

“It’s not right, but we just have to continue in our effort to be a national program,” Jones said. “While people try to look at us separately, that’s not what we’re all about.”

It’s not just HBCU teams that are looked at separately, it’s the coaches (aside from former Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders) as well. 

As an example, look at Jones’ résumé in nine seasons at Norfolk State: two trips to the NCAA tournament, four MEAC finals (two titles), and three 20-win seasons (only one season with a losing record).

If Jones posted those accomplishments at, say, Iona, he’d be the head coach at St. John’s.

“That’s OK,” Jones said. “Our administration at Norfolk State — our president and athletic director — are forward thinkers and give us as many resources as they can. We’re able to do a lot more things than we weren’t able to do before, and I’m happy.”

And he’ll continue to move forward with a Norfolk State team he got a better understanding of over the course of a tough weekend in Las Vegas.

“We’ve had key players out with injuries, which is a challenge, but I learned about our depth and our resiliency,” Jones said. “I learned we have a lot of guys, like Terrance, who can step up. I’m happy where we are at.”

To wrap the weekend: the second straight 2-0 record in the HBCU Challenge, the only undefeated team in the two years of the showcase.

“Since we haven’t lost,” Jones said. “Maybe Chris Paul will invite us back again.”

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.





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