With the dust having settled from the MEAC Tournament's big upsets in the quarterfinals when 8-seed Hampton beat 1-seed Savannah State and 3-seed Delaware State fell to 11-seed Florida A&M, the two best teams left were 2-seed Norfolk State and 4-seed Bethune-Cookman. Both teams won their semifinal games as expected, and were both one win away from the NCAA Tournament. But the two teams could also with a win end up in Dayton, needing another win to get national recognition despite winning their conference tournament. And it seemed likely that a non-regular season champion from the MEAC was not getting better than a 16 seed, where an upset seemed to be an impossible task. And that leaves the question: what was the meaning of this game?
The meaning of Our Game to outsiders is very small. You always have that magical chance of winning a national title. But the only one of our teams to have come close in my lifetime is Butler. VCU and George Mason have made the Final Four, but for most other mid-majors the Sweet 16 is as far as they can go. And for teams out of conferences like the MEAC and the Big South, even that seems to be an impossible dream. Tournaments like the MEAC do more to determine the NCAA Tournament field than the tournament of the Big East. But ESPN has wall-to-wall coverage of the ACC and Big East tournaments, neglecting the mid-major tournaments until their final game. And as the upsets have shown us, a lot can happen before that final game in determining a champion and NCAA Tournament team. But the sportz talk never focuses on Our Game during the conference tournaments, other than making references to the champions as far as who the NCAA has to take. The sportz world is oblivious to the struggle of our conference tournaments for the most part. The day after this game, Greg Gumbel of CBS during the selection show said about the camera shot focused on Creighton's team "waiting to see where they will go, if they will go", oblivious to the fact that Creighton had won the MVC Tournament and was most definitely going. The perceived lack of relevance in Our Game is why so many students at our schools follow other teams. When I was at High Point, we went on a bus trip to Chapel Hill to see HPU face North Carolina. One of our women's soccer players showed up in UNC gear to cheer on the Tar Heels. When we questioned her about it, she said that when she graduated she would be able to follow their team better because they played on television more. As a student-athlete herself, she should have known what our basketball players were dealing with considering that her soccer career would end a year later with a NCAA Tournament loss to UNC's powerhouse program. And I also had a classmate say she was a bigger Duke fan than a High Point fan, since she could not relate as well to the traditions of the Big South as the ACC. This is what we face.
But Bethune-Cookman and Norfolk State both had something to play for. The winner would be the MEAC Tournament champion, a big accomplishment in its own right even with Savannah State having won the regular season title. Winning today would mean that you would be the best in the MEAC at the end of the season and with everything on the line. For Bethune-Cookman, they would certainly end up in Dayton with a win. But going to Dayton would mean a chance for an NCAA tournament win on national television, even without the prestige of the first full weekend with the big-name teams. And a win in Dayton would mean more revenue for the school and the conference as well between playing in two different rounds. A loss in Dayton would not be good however. But you would still have been given the NCAA Tournament experience, which no player will ever forget.
As for Norfolk State, there was a good chance at avoiding Dayton. Before the game, Matt Cayuela tweeted to me that the Spartans might have a chance at a 15 seed. If Norfolk State could get the selection committee to overlook finishing second in a conference with a low RPI and a Black Line Upset at the hands of Elizabeth City State, and instead focus on their quality non-conference wins over CAA regular season champ Drexel and NEC tournament champion LIU Brooklyn, maybe they had a chance. The last two 15 seeds had both been from the MEAC, so why not the Spartans?
So it was the magnitude of this conference championship and its automatic bid that made me want to get up early and drive 180 miles to Winston-Salem. Playing for a championship and the right to go to the biggest stage in college sports is something I really enjoy seeing, and last Monday in Asheville did not disappoint. So after seeing four women's basketball games at the Division II NCAA Tournament Friday, I got up at 8 AM Saturday to head to Winston-Salem. There was definitely something to play for.
But I did not expect it to be much to play for. I tweeted in my opening that the winner was P.I.G. bound. This game had relevance for me and followers of Our Game, but I did not think that it would have a big effect on the college basketball world on the whole. And for the most part, it seemed that not many other fans cared. The championship costs $36.50 to attend, which is more than you would pay for most games above the Red Line. And even with the experience being more than basketball and being part of a family cultural event that both me and Kyle have written about, the arena was less than half full. The MEAC did not announce any official attendance after the first two days of the tournament, but I would say there were no more than 6,000 people in the arena that seats over 14,000.
The game got under way, and Norfolk State got out to the early lead. But it would not be much of a lead for most of the first half, with Bethune-Cookman hanging in and keeping the game close. The arena was not too much into the game, and it did not seem like a championship. I had hoped to see more of a traditional HBCU atmosphere like at SC State, and it was certainly better sitting near the Norfolk State students and band which were excited about the game. The Spartans began to show their talent level by ending the first half with a run, going up by 13 at halftime.
It seemed that the size of the Spartans was starting to overcome Bethune-Cookman, and I wondered if a good showing here could make Norfolk State a 15 seed. The most interesting thing going on where I was sitting seemed to be when the Hampton band arrived for the women's game at 4 PM, leading to shouting back and forth between the rival fans of Norfolk and Hampton located on opposite sides of Hampton Roads.
But things began to turn three minutes into the second half. Norfolk forward Kyle O'Quinn, who had been making big plays for NSU, tried to chase down BCU's Garrius Holloman who was going for a steal and a dunk. O'Quinn ended up driving Holloman into the ground, and was called for a flagrant foul. The officials then stopped the game to review to see whether O'Quinn should be ejected, which would have been a huge blow for NSU. But O'Quinn was allowed to continue, although he was benched for five minutes after the play. NSU cut the lead to eight before O'Quinn came back and pushed the lead back up to 14. It seemed that Norfolk State was headed for their first NCAA Tournament.
But they could never get the Wildcats to go away. In the final minute, BCU chipped away at the lead by going in for layups while NSU responded by going 1 for 2 at the line. The lead was cut from nine with 90 seconds left to just three with less than 20 seconds left, and forced a critical turnover by O'Quinn. The Wildcats twice tried to get a good shot off, but could not get a good look at a three and missed both times. Norfolk State had finally come through, and would head to the NCAA Tournament.
The NSU students were held back by security, just like Davidson's were in Asheville. While the players jumped up and celebrated on the scorers' table and hugged family members in the stands, the students were content to jump around with their band as the celebration commenced.
After the game, I tweeted hopes of good luck for Norfolk State getting a good seed, but did not want it to be at the expense of UNC Asheville, who had dominated my conference all season. As it turned out, both teams were rewarded to a degree for their seasons. UNCA avoided Dayton, and played 1-seed Syracuse. I had hoped that Asheville would have been seeded better than a Detroit team with a low RPI, but UNCA had something to play for: being the first #16 seed to beat a #1 seed. The Bulldogs came very close to doing so, but fell just short..
As for Norfolk State, they were rewarded for their out-of-conference play with a #15 seed, which gave them a chance against #2 seed Missouri.
BETHUNE-COOKMAN 18-17 (11-5) -- J. Bryant 6-13 3-4 15; K. Dukes 7-14 0-0 18; A. Coleman 4-10 6-9 14; G. Holloman 6-15 0-0 12; R. Johnson 3-6 3-4 11; S. Elliott Jr. 0-3 0-0 0; P. Scotland 0-1 0-0 0; A. Breeze 0-1 0-0 0; A. Smith 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-63 12-17 70. NORFOLK STATE 25-9 (13-3) -- P. Williams 4-10 9-11 17; K. O'Quinn 6-12 6-6 18; C. McEachin 3-11 1-2 8; R. Johnson 6-7 2-3 15; R. McCauley 0-2 1-2 1; M. Tamares 1-3 2-2 4; J. Fuentes 1-3 0-1 2; Q. Pugh 1-3 0-0 2; B. Wheeless 3-3 0-0 6; A. Rogers 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 25-57 21-27 73.
Three-point goals: BETH 6-13 (A. Coleman 0-1; K. Dukes 4-7; G. Holloman 0-2; R. Johnson 2-3), NORF 2-12 (C. McEachin 1-7; K. O'Quinn 0-1; R. Johnson 1-2; P. Williams 0-2); Rebounds: BETH 26 (J. Bryant 7), NORF 34 (P. Williams 9); Assists: BETH 11 (K. Dukes 4), NORF 10 (P. Williams 3); Total Fouls -- BETH 23, NORF 13; Fouled Out: BETH-S. Elliott Jr.; NORF-None.