NORFOLK, Va. – The Norfolk State men’s basketball team staved off a late Howard rally on Friday night, and as a result, the Spartans are championship game bound once again. The No. 1 seed Spartans topped the No. 4 seed Bison by a 75-69 score in the MEAC tournament semifinals at Scope Arena.
NSU advances to Saturday’s title game, where the Spartans will take on No. 3 seed North Carolina Central on Saturday at 1 p.m. live on ESPN2.
NSU will make its fourth-ever MEAC Championship game appearance and the second in three years. The Spartans got there after holding back the Bison late in the game when a 13-point advantage dwindled down to two with less than four minutes left.
Norfolk State (21-12) also went to the championship game in 2009, ’12 and ’17. The Spartans will look to join the 2012 squad as the only NSU teams to capture the title since joining the league.
As has been customary the latter half of the season, different players stepped up for NSU on Friday night. This time, it was junior Steven Whitley. He had a season-high 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting with five rebounds and three assists. No shot was bigger than his only 3-point make of the contest with 47.7 seconds left.
That make put NSU up by six after the Bison (17-16) had been making shot after shot on the other end of the floor. They made 10-of-13 over an eight-minute stretch after falling behind by 13 with 9:37 to go. Five of those buckets during that time were 3-pointers. Chad Lott and R.J. Cole combined for 19 of the team’s 29 points during that eight-minute stretch.
The Spartan lead dropped all the way down to just two points with 3:50 left on a 3-pointer from Howard’s Raymond Bethea Jr. from the left wing. But junior Nic Thomas slashed to the net for two, senior Jordan Butler had a tip-in, and both he and sophomore Mastadi Pitt each made 2-of-2 from the line after the Spartans had struggled from the charity stripe throughout the game.
Still, the Spartans only led by three in the last few minutes of the game after Lott hit a couple of jumpers. His last one with 1:23 was followed by Whitley’s trey from the right wing on a dish from Pitt. The Bison had a pair of turnovers in the last 40 seconds of the game to stifle their comeback.
Senior Derrik Jamerson Jr. put the Spartans ahead by 13 with his fifth and final 3-pointer of the game. After struggling the last few games, he caught fire against the Bison, hitting 5-of-6 from deep for a 15-point night. He also sparked NSU in the first half after Howard built a nine-point lead.
Howard had the early advantage, 10-2, with Lott and Charles Williams sinking 3-pointers in the first few minutes. But the Spartans chipped away after Cole’s 3-pointer made it 13-4. A 3-pointer from Thomas from the top of the key was followed later by Whitley’s layup in traffic. NSU eventually tied the score at 13-13 halfway through the period after completing a 9-0 run.
Jamerson’s 3-pointer gave the Spartans their first lead of the game at the 7:05 mark, and he made three more treys as they pushed ahead. Norfolk State led by as much as 10 after a putback layup by Pitt with 1:44 left, and it went into the half up 34-26 after forcing 10 Bison turnovers and holding them to 37 percent shooting in the first period.
NSU went ahead by 10 early in the second half and led by at least eight for nearly nine minutes before HU’s late run.
Cole, the league’s player of the year, finished with 19 points on 6-of-16 shooting with seven assists and five boards. Lott added 21 points, knocking down 9-of-16 from the floor. Zion Cousins also contributed 10 points and seven rebounds.
Howard shot 52 percent in the second half and went 10-of-21 from deep for the night. The Bison connected on nearly 45 percent overall.
Pitt totaled 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting with six rebounds, four assists, and two steals, and Butler tallied a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds with three blocks and two steals. NSU controlled the glass, 42-32, and used that edge to outscore the Bison 14-7 in second-chance points.
The Spartans shot 44 percent from the floor, including 8-of-18 from deep. They did struggle from the free throw line, connecting on just 17-of-29 (58.6 percent).
NSU and Howard met in the MEAC tournament for the fourth time ever. The Spartans have won all four meetings, including in 2017 in the semifinals when they last advanced to the title game.