Howard University and Norfolk State University squared off twice on MEAC tournament championship Saturday. Both the men’s and women’s basketball programs of the institutions squared off in the final for the first time in the conference’s history. The men were the first ones to head into battle, with a 1 pm tip-off.
The Bison, fresh off their first outright regular-season MEAC title since 1987 came into the tournament with a target on them. As does every number 1 seed in tournament-style play. What made the finals different is that their opponent, the NSU Spartans, had a target on them as well. NSU was the reigning MEAC tournament winner. In fact, the Spartans had represented the conference in the NCAA tournament for two straight years.
The game started off for the Bison as the South Carolina State and University of Maryland Eastern Shore had—slowly. They fell behind early to the reigning champions, who had finished their game against North Carolina Central University about 13 hours prior to tip-off. NSU’s overtime win against Central didn’t seem to influence how they played.
After a nip and tuck first half, the Bison ended the first half on a 9-0 run to give them a 32-27 lead. Norfolk State’s top two players, Joe Bryant Jr, and Kris Bankston didn’t play well in the half due to fouls and a defense that keyed on them. Howard defended Bryant the entire length of the court, and Bankston got two early fouls that relegated the team’s 2nd leading scorer and top rebounder to a spectator. Bryant, the team’s leading scorer was held without a point.
With three games in three days, and their star players struggling, Norfolk State could have easily folded. Instead, they led a mad charge at the beginning of the half, scoring on their first six trips down the court. Eventually, they took the lead in what would be a back-and-forth affair until the last second. There were over a dozen lead changes in the game.
The second half was also plagued with fouls. One possession after the other ended in trips to the free-throw line. Defending without fouling became a near impossibility because neither team shot the ball well from deep. The one and two-seeded teams combined to shoot 9/33 from behind the arc. Both teams struggled to shoot from distance and went to the paint to score.
It became a rugby match, with offensive rebounds becoming the best way to put up points. There were 54 total foul shots taken and 43 total fouls. The game was rugged, and not always aesthetically pleasing.
The game would be decided in the final minute. The game was tied at 60 before Norfolk State scored. After a missed Shy Odom lay-in attempt, Bryant corralled the rebound and was promptly fouled. He calmly sank two free throws (he was 8/11 from the charity stripe). Down four, with 23 seconds remaining, it appeared Howard was done.
Rushing down the floor, it appeared Odom was going to go for a quick two-point basket, but as he made his move in the paint, he found Marcus Dockery for the three-pointer (his first made attempt of the game) to make it a one-possession game.
After the timeout, Caheim Brown, of NSU turned the ball over on the ensuing pass inbounds. Jelani Williams, the senior captain of the team and the game’s leading scorer (20 points) was fouled on the way to the basket and sank the two free throws to give Howard the lead, and ultimately the win. The Bison will go to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992. They will find out where and who they will play on March 12th on Selection Sunday.