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2023 MEAC Basketball Tournament: Norfolk State defeats North Carolina Central 72-65 in OT Thriller

Image featuring former Norfolk State Guard Joe Bryant Jr. Image courtesy of Norfolk State Athletics.

The three-seeded Norfolk State Spartans defeated the two-seeded North Carolina Central Eagles 72-65 in overtime in the semifinals. The Spartans will advance to their fifth MEAC tournament championship game appearance in the last six years.

The Norfolk State Spartans (22-10) were led by guard Joe Bryant Jr., who garnered a double-double by tallying 23 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 26 percent from the field. Three other Spartans scored in double figures including forward Kris Bankston who scored 20 points, forward Dana Tate Jr. added 10 points, and junior guard Caheim Brown contributed 12 points off the bench. This is the second straight game the Spartans had four players score in double figures.

The North Carolina Central Eagles (18-12) had four players score double digits throughout the overtime loss. Guard Justin Wright and forward Kris Monrow scored 13 points each in the contest, respectively. Guard Eric Boone contributed 11 points and Guard Fred Cleveland Jr added another 11 points off the bench. The team collectively shot 35 percent from the field.

Norfolk State started the game on a 9-0 run, with Central not scoring until the 11:25 minute mark in the first half. The Eagles shot 0-10 to start the game despite having open looks from the floor. Norfolk State controlled the tempo for much of the first half until the Eagles went on a 9-0 run by hitting three-pointers on three-straight possessions before intermission. The Eagles shot 20 percent from the field going into halftime while the Spartans shot 36 percent, respectively. The Spartans led 22-20 at halftime despite the surge from the Eagles.

The Eagles took their first lead of the game at the 16:51 minute mark in the second half to go up 27-26. The Spartans regained a 39-29 lead at the 11:26 minute mark in the second period, capitalizing on their free throw opportunities. The Spartans had 39 free throw attempts during the matchup, while the Eagles had 18 opportunities from the foul line, respectively. The two-seeded Eagles made five three-pointers in the second half to keep the game close, eventually cutting the deficit down to 3 at the 5:56 minute mark and at the 47.6 second marks, respectively. Guard Justin Wright scored a two-pointer to make the score 56-53 late in the second half. Center Brendan Medley-Bacon scored a two-pointer to cut the Spartans lead to 1 with 14.7 seconds remaining. The Eagles implemented a full-court press to try and force a turnover, but the Spartans got the ball into guard Terrance Jones' hands and intentionally fouled him.

Jones hit both free throw attempts to make the lead 58-55 for the Spartans with only a few seconds remaining. Guard Justin Wright drove down the court and made a contested three-pointer to tie the game 58-58, thus sending the game into overtime.

Joe Bryant Jr led the way for the Spartans in overtime by scoring 10 points while also going 6 for 6 from the free throw line to eliminate the Eagles. Norfolk State head coach Robert Jones shared his thoughts on the overtime victory.

“Great win for our guys, great resilience that was probably one of the greatest games I have ever been a part of as a coach in the postseason. This definitely ranks number one in the postseason ranks. I think we should have won in regulation, but we blew a defensive assignment and we had to win it in overtime,” Jones said.

North Carolina Central head coach LaVelle Moton shared his analysis on the loss and the gap between the number of free throw opportunities between both teams.

“Disappointed to say the least. Early on I thought we were getting some great shots at the basket, but they were going in and out. I thought the difference is they made their layups and we did not make ours. 39 free throws to 18, it was hard to watch,” Moton said.

Norfolk State will face Howard in the MEAC championship game Saturday afternoon, aiming to three-peat as MEAC tournament champions.

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