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 overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
“It’s amazing that two HBCUs moved on tonight. For us, that’s the first MEAC win in a long time,” said Texas Southern coach Johnny 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 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 last Saturday 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,” 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.”
Jones got wet because his best front court 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,” Jones said. “I thought he was the big difference in the game. He was a matchup problem for our opponent.”
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,” 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.
“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 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.
That 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, 46-44. That was in the midst of a 16-0 Appalachian State run during which the Mountaineers took the lead, which set up a frantic back-and-forth finish.
Appalachian was in position to win the game at the end despite hitting 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.