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Stan Becton | | February 24, 2023

How two HBCUs won an NCAA tournament game in the same year for the first time

Norfolk State holds off Appalachian State

It took 41 years after the first HBCU March Madness win for two HBCUs to win an NCAA tournament game in the same year. The historic feat occurred in 2021 when Texas Southern and Norfolk State emerged victorious from the First Four. Let's take a look back at the groundbreaking moment in March Madness and HBCU history. 

How they got there

Texas Southern and Norfolk State each entered their conference tournaments without winning their regular season conference title. However, both teams won their conference tournaments to secure an automatic bid and end NCAA tournament droughts. 

Texas Southern, the third-seeded team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), blasted top-seeded Prairie View A&M in the SWAC title game 80-61 to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018. Norfolk State, the second-seeded team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), won its second-ever MEAC title and first since 2012 by beating third-seeded Morgan State 71-63. 

The SWAC champion Tigers and MEAC champion Spartans improved on their regular-season finishes and now awaited Selection Sunday.

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Setting the stage

After winning conference titles, Texas Southern and Norfolk State's seeding was unclear. Would either team land higher than a 16 seed? One thing guaranteed was that regardless of the seed, both teams would head to Indianapolis, the home of the entire 2021 tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time Selection Sunday was over, Texas Southern and Norfolk State received 16 seeds, with both teams headed to the First Four.

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Texas Southern drew Mount St. Mary's in the first game at 5:10 p.m. ET Thursday, March 18, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. The SWAC champions would play the NEC champions as Mount St. Mary's made its sixth appearance in the tournament, entering on a four-game win streak.  Meanwhile, the Tigers entered having won nine straight and 14 of their past 15 games. The winner of the First Four battle would advance to play East Region No. 1 seed Michigan on Saturday, March 20.

Norfolk State drew Appalachian State in the second game at 8:40 p.m. ET on Thursday, March 18, directly after its HBCU counterpart. The MEAC champions would play Sun Belt champion Appalachian State in the first NCAA tournament appearance for the Mountaineers in 21 years. The Mountaineers entered the NCAA tournament after winning four games in four days, hoping for their first-ever NCAA tournament win. Meanwhile, Norfolk State made its return to the tournament where it last upset No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012's first round. The winner of 2021's First Four battle would advance to play West Region No. 1 and tournament top-overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday, March 20.

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Game 1: Texas Southern vs. Mount St. Mary's

Texas Southern and Mount St. Mary's ended a 710-day NCAA tournament drought — thanks to COVID — when their game tipped off. Mount St. Mary's controlled the game early, dictating the tempo and forcing Texas Southern to just 27 percent shooting. The Tigers scored only 20 points in the first 20 minutes as the Mountaineers led 30-20 at halftime.

The second half was a story of runs. Texas Southern's John Walker III and Jordan Gilliam scored the first 11 points of the second half to grab a 31-30 lead. Mount St. Mary's answered with an 8-0 run to retake the lead. The back-and-forth continued when the Tigers went on an 8-0 run of their own, jumping back in front.

Texas Southern continued to pull away with strong defense and efficient scoring, ultimately winning 60-52. The Tigers held Mount St. Mary's to 32 percent shooting from the field and 2-12 from three in the second half, outscoring the Mountaineers in the final frame 40-22. In the win, Walker scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed career-high nine rebounds as Texas Southern won its second NCAA tournament game in four years.

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Game 2: Norfolk State vs. Appalachian State 

The second game of the day saw the second HBCU program to play, Norfolk State, jump out to an early lead. The Spartans led 10-3 early and then went on a 15-0 run to boost their lead to 34-15. Norfolk State led by as many as 19 in the first half, scoring 14 points off 10 Appalachian State turnovers. Appalachian State struggled offensively, shooting 0-18 from three in the first half — the worst by any team in a half in the 2021 season. Meanwhile, Norfolk State's Jalen Hawkins scored 20 first-half points off the bench to give the Spartans a 36-20 halftime lead.

In the second half, Appalachian State got hot from the field, going on a 26-4 run to grab a six-point lead, 51-45, with 5:48 to play. However, the Mountaineers quickly cooled off, failing to score a basket from the field for the remainder of the game. That, coupled with a 7-0 Norfolk State-run put the Spartans back in front. Appalachian State's Adrian Delph made two free throws with 1:03 to play to make the score 53-52 as the second First Four game was coming down to the wire.

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With 8.6 seconds to play, Norfolk State's Devante Carter got fouled and made two free throws to give the Spartans a one-point advantage. On Appalachian State's final possession, it missed two shots — the Mountaineers missed their final 10 attempts — giving Norfolk State the 54-53 win.

Norfolk State escaped with the March Madness win and avoided a second-half collapse after shooting 26 percent in the second half. Thanks to Hawkins' career-high 24 points, the Spartans overcame poor shooting nights from season-leading scorers Carter and Joe Bryant Jr. who only combined for 14 points.

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What they said

Here's what the two history-making HBCUs, Texas Southern and Norfolk State, had to say after the wins.

Two HBCUs making history

Norfolk State head coach Robert Jones on two HBCUs winning an NCAA tournament game, "I mean, it's amazing that two HBCUs moved on tonight... I'm happy. I'm happy for the conference. I'm happy for the school. I'm happy for the young men in that locker room. And I'm happy just to have HBCUs."

Texas Southern's win

Texas Southern head coach Johnny Jones on the second-half comeback, "The second half I thought was the exact opposite. I thought defensively we were very aggressive, forced them out of their offensive rhythm... We were much more aggressive on the offensive end than we were in the first half going toward the basket, getting downhill and also knocked down a few threes."

Texas Southern forward John Walker III after winning in the First Four, "I feel like I'm on top of the world. I just wanted it so bad, it wasn't even about me. It was about going out there and beating a good team and getting it done."

Coach Johnny Jones on Walker's big day, "John was incredible. I thought he was exceptional, played well for us. John is very elusive. When he catches that ball inside he has a knack for scoring."

Norfolk State's win

Norfolk State guard Jalen Hawkins on providing a spark off the bench, "I've kinda come off the bench and given my team a spark all year. Coming off as the sixth man, I kinda like that."

Coach Robert Jones after the crazy win, "March Madness is back, right? Survive and advance, that's exactly what we did."

Coach Robert Jones on blowing a lead in the NCAA tournament, "This is a tournament of champions, so 16 points is not really a big lead when a tournament of champions, because everyone has championship pedigree. But once again, I'd like to say kudos to my guys for relaxing and staying calm down the stretch when we could have easily folded, I think they got up four points."

Hawkins on Appalachian State's comeback, "We were kind of panicking a little bit because we weren't expecting them to come back so fast. Our coach told us to stay positive, play defense, that's what we strive on. We knew we had to play defense from the jump."

Coach Robert Jones on the togetherness of Norfolk State, "These guys love each other like brothers. When you say family, you can see it. Forget about me preaching it. You can see it that these guys are family."

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