OMAHA — When the final horn sounded and Norfolk State officially became the fifth No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed in NCAA tournament history, nearly 17,000 people were on their feet and screaming at one end of the emotional spectrum or the other.
How many of them were among the roughly 2.63 million people who had entered the bracket challenge on ESPN.com and predicted the Spartans’ opponent Friday would advance to the Final Four? How many of them cared?
When a plucky squad such as Norfolk State — widely overlooked this week, being the NCAA tournament’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference representative and all — defeats a program like Missouri, the West Region’s second-seeded team, fans tend to be less bothered about having to torch their brackets. The Spartans beat Missouri, 86-84, and indeed set the college basketball world ablaze.
“The MEAC is a very good league,” fifth-year Coach Anthony Evans said. “Just doesn’t get the exposure that the high-level schools get.”
Norfolk State’s upset victory led to several relevant questions. First one: Seriously? Yes. The Spartans kept Missouri from implementing its break-neck pace by outrebounding the Tigers, 37-25. It’s hard to sprint up the floor without the kick-start of a defensive rebound. Norfolk State turned 14 offensive rebounds into 16 second-chance points.
It’s also proving increasingly ominous when No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament are paired with No. 15 seeds that hail from the state of Virginia. Of the five 15th-seeded teams that have pulled such upsets, Norfolk State is the third from the commonwealth. Hampton beat Iowa State in 2001. Richmond knocked off Syracuse in 1991.
Norfolk State had played Marquette twice earlier this season, and the Spartans felt their experience against the Golden Eagles’ up-tempo style prepared them to face Missouri. Still, this was the same Norfolk State team that also lost to Division II Elizabeth City State by 12 points on Nov. 30.
“It was kind of like [the Elizabeth City State loss] didn’t count for us,” Spartans guard Brandon Wheeless said. “That’s how we was looking at it, like it was a scrimmage. There are big DI schools that lose to small DI schools in the preseason, and that’s kind of like how that happened.”
Another question: Who’s responsible for this? Well, Norfolk State senior center Kyle O’Quinn certainly did his part. O’Quinn tallied game highs in points (26) and rebounds (14) and made 5 of 8 free throws in the final three minutes to help seal the Spartans’ win.
With 10.1 seconds to play Friday, Missouri guard Phil Pressey scored a three-pointer to cut the Tigers’ deficit to one. After a timeout, Norfolk State guard Rodney McCauley’s inbounds pass deflected off teammate Marcos Tamares and back into McCauley’s hands, just as he’d established one foot in play. McCauley was fouled immediately, but made only the first of his two ensuing free throws.
O’Quinn wrestled with Pressey to force a jump ball and then was fouled with 3.8 seconds left. He missed both free throws, which gave Missouri one final chance. But Pressey’s three-point attempt at the buzzer fell errant.
“I probably would’ve killed myself on the court if I knew [the two missed free throws] would’ve been the deciding factor,” O’Quinn said.
One more question, this one courtesy of Norfolk State assistant Wilson Washington, who barged into his team’s locker room moments after reporters had poured in to begin postgame interviews.
“Which one of you guys is going to call Obama and tell him we messed up his bracket?” the 6-foot-10 Washington bellowed.
President Obama was one of those 2.63 million people who picked Missouri to advance to the Final Four. He’d done so on national television, in fact. Tamares said he and his roommate, Jamal Fuentes, watched Obama make his picks and considered the fact the president didn’t even mention Norfolk State’s name a considerable slight.
“I still like President Obama, though,” Tamares said, raising his hands as if being held up. “I don’t want no problems with the commander in chief.”