Even though some of their thunder was stolen away just a few hours later on Friday, the Norfolk State Spartans still find themselves active in the 74th annual NCAA Tournament as they clash with the Florida Gators in West Regional action at CenturyLink Center Omaha in Nebraska this evening.
Heading into this year's tournament, only four times had a 15th-seeded program knocked off a second seed, the last occurrence taking place 11 years ago when Hampton, also a representative from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, turned the trick against Iowa State. Well, Norfolk State joined that exclusive club thanks to an 86-84 triumph over mighty Missouri, a feat made all the more special since it was the first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the Spartans.
A few hours after NSU grabbed the headlines, the Spartans had to share the spotlight with Lehigh which knocked off second-seeded Duke.
As for the Gators, unlike NSU they have plenty of experience in this event and used that knowledge to help propel them past 10th-seeded Virginia rather easily in a 71-45 decision in the second round.
The Gators, owners of a 30-12 record in the NCAA Tournament all-time, have produced a mark of 26-9 under the direction of head coach Billy Donovan during his tenure. The team won the national title in back-to-back seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07), defeating UCLA and Ohio State, respectively. The team is aiming for a seventh all-time appearance in the round of 16.
The survivor of this first-ever meeting will head to the Sweet 16 where they will clash with the Marquette Golden Eagles, who defeated Murray State in the third round yesterday by a score of 62-53.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament the Spartans had reached the 80-point plateau just five times during the season, the squad's overall high coming in a 90-89 final versus Morgan State the second week of January, but the team needed a pair of overtimes to make that happen so coming up with 86 in the win over a powerhouse like Missouri was almost unprecedented. Another remarkable fact from the unlikely victory was that every single point for the Spartans came from the starting five, sparked by Kyle O'Quinn who celebrated St. Patrick's Day a little early with yet another double-double with 26 points and 14 rebounds for the underdogs. Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin both added 20 points, Marcos Tamares 11 and Rodney McCauley nine points to go along with seven boards and a team-best six assists as the Spartans made good on not only 54.2 percent from the floor but also 10-of-19 behind the three-point line. O���Quinn, who now has 20 double-doubles on the season, is averaging 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per outing over the course of his 35 starts, while McEachin (13.0 ppg) and Williams (12.1 ppg) handle the action on the perimeter with a combined 128 three-pointers thus far.
With one of the top defenses in the entire nation, Virginia frustrated the Gators on Friday by limiting Florida to a mere 4-of-23 shooting behind the three-point line, an unsightly 1-of-15 on the outside in the first half alone. But the Gators changed their made of attack and instead of focusing so much on taking their shots from the outside as they had done for the entire season, Florida shooters shortened the distance to the goal and in turn made good on a staggering 69.6 percent from the floor in the second half of what turned into a 26-point romp over the Cavaliers. In a game that saw a 34-point swing, a well-balanced scoring attack for Florida was rewarded as Casey Prather and Bradley Beal both tallied 14 points, the latter pulling down 11 rebounds from his guard position, while Patric Young responded with 13 points and seven boards as he knocked down all six of his field goal tries. Perhaps the best news out of coming up with such a lopsided victory is that Kenny Boynton, the leading scorer for the Gators on the season with his 16.0 ppg, tallied just eight points and still Florida rolled. After 34 starts Beal is good for 14.6 ppg and 6.7 rpg, while Erving Walker puts up 12.0 ppg and 4.6 apg in an effort to offset his 39.8 percent shooting from the floor.