One Bid Leagues Bring Excitement during the Play In Games
“It was an amazing experience,” Norfolk State guard, Jalen Hawkins, said after the Spartans knocked off Appalachian State in the First Four on March 18th. “It’s been a long year, we’re here, we’re dancing.”
As fans around the world huddle around screens to digest hours upon hours of gluttonous basketball content over the coming weeks, it feels right to over-indulge given the absence of the NCAA Tournament last March. We deserve it after all, right? Our sacrifice should be rewarded…right?
Yet, even going 24 months without Madness, as fans what we had to go without is a candle in the sun when compared to the season that players, coaches, and tier I staff had to endure. After a start-stop season with Covid pauses and cancelations, the few teams able to make it to March and play in Indianapolis sacrificed far more than what we can even imagine.
Which what makes this March all the more special. And when it was time for the First Four, to help shave the field to 64 teams, the teams to open tournament play were representative of the one-bid, Low Major conferences, where you truly only get one chance to make the dance.
Teams from one-bid leagues in a Covid year know just what it means to make it this far, which makes victory all the more jubilant, and defeat all the more difficult.
Norfolk State Survives scare thanks to a career night from Jalen Hawkins
Head Coach Robert Jones and his Norfolk State Spartans road into the First Four play-in games on a six game winning streak, having last saw defeat back on February 8th, to Coppin State. Not afraid to slow the pace down, as the Spartans have the second highest defensive tempo rate in the field according to KenPom behind Arkansas, Norfolk State allowed 53 total points to Appalachian State, the least amount they’ve given up all season.
On the offensive end, Jones leans heavily on Senior guard, Devante Carter, who leads the team in points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game. However, it wasn’t the vet from Newport News who stole the show, but Bronx, New York native, Jalen Hawkins, who poured in 24 points on 8/13 shooting, 4/5 from deep.
“I feel amazing right now,” Hawkins said postgame. “I feel excited. I stayed positive all year, I’ve been in the gym all year. Early mornings, 6 AM…I knew it was bound to happen.”
All season, Hawkins proved to be an important piece for the Spartans and averaged 10.2 PPG. His contribution on Thursday night helped hold off a late surge from App State, allowing Norfolk to advance in the field for the first time since 2012, where they now meet top seeded Gonzaga.
After being down 38-20 early in the second half, App State clawed back to take a 53-52 lead with 1:03 left in the game. And while Hawkins was the one who brought the Spartans that far, it was the aforementioned Devante Carter who scored the biggest two points of his career with two free throws to take the 54-53 lead with just 10 ticks left on the clock and ultimately sealed the victory.
“I knew they were good, I didn’t even have to look at them,” Hawkins said of the Carter free throws that sealed the win. “I trust him.”
Head Coach Robert Jones Reflects on The Win
“Wow, this is crazy…” Coach Jones muttered to himself as he sunk into his seat at the postgame presser. Followed by a chuckle, it was evident the leader of the Norfolk State Spartans was letting the moment sink in.
“What a game. March Madness is back, right?” After the late game fright from App State, the moment didn’t seem lost on Jones afterward. “We knew Appalachian State wasn’t going to go away.”
“It’s a tournament of champions, so 16 points isn’t a big lead,” Jones said of the early second half lead that his Spartans enjoyed. “Everyone has championship pedigree.”
And in a tournament of champions, there’s no rest for the wicked. Now, still riding high off of their big win on Thursday, Coach Jones and his staff must prepare for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the nation’s top college basketball team.
Noting the off nights from his stars, Jones stressed the importance of Jalen Hawkins, and how the team needed “every bucket” Jalen gave them. However, Coach made sure everyone was aware it wasn’t a one man effort tonight.
Jones said how the crowd of 500 people in attendance was the most his Spartans have had all year, and that it isn’t new for them to bring the energy everyday on their own.
“We manufacture energy,” Jones said. “B.Y.OE. Bring your own energy.”
No Pressure Situation Awaits
With no time to waste, Coach Jones now turns his attention to the Gonzaga Bulldogs. When asked if there’s pressure, his answer was simple.
“The pressure was getting here. Everybody in a one bid league, that’s where all the pressure is at. Once you get here, you play with house money.”
The loaded roster of Gonzaga isn’t lost on Jones and the Spartans, but program history isn’t lost either. “No one gave us a shot,” Jones said of the 2012 Spartans who, as a 15 seed knocked off 2 seeded Missouri in the opening round or how his Norfolk led squad sent Alabama packing in the NIT in 2019.
Once the buzzer went off, the work began anew for the Spartans staff.
“I don’t know when I’m going to go to sleep,” Jones said postgame when asked what time he’ll call it a night with Saturday’s matchup looming. “As far as preparing [the scouting report], we’re going to stay up all night to finish it. We already started it because we believed we were going to play them [Gonzaga].”
And what exactly is Coach Jones thinking now that his 16-seed Spartans get ready to go toe-to-toe with the top seeded Bulldogs?
“As a program, we’ve had our two largest victories by point spread in both the NIT and NCAA, so why not do it again?”