NORFOLK, Va. – Norfolk State and senior guard Joe Bryant Jr. repeated as MEAC champion and Most Outstanding Player as the Spartans ended the upset bid of 7th-seed Coppin State, 72-57 in the championship game of the MEAC Basketball Tournament at Scope Arena.
The win will send the Spartans (24-6) back to the NCAA Tournament’s Big Dance with the automatic bid that goes to the MEAC’s tournament champion.
Norfolk State living and dying with Joe Bryant Jr.
Bryant, this year’s regular season player of the year, punctuated his game-high 23-point performance with a 3-pointer in the final half-minute. The 6-1 Norfolk native hit 7 of 14 shots from the field and 5 of 9 3-pointers to lead the Spartans.
His backcourt mate, redshirt junior Jalen Hawkins, finished with 17 points including two 3s. Redshirt junior Dana Tate Jr. added 13 points including a couple of 3-pointers.
The key however was NSU’s ability to prevent the long-shooting Eagles from ever finding a rhythm. Or perhaps it was weary legs and fatigue that did the Eagles in after playing the late-night game in Friday’s semifinals.
Coppin State lives, dies by the 3
Either way, Coppin State made just five baskets from behind the arc in 35 attempts, a woeful 7.1 percent. The Eagles canned 12 of 29 (41.4%) Friday. Jesse Zarzuela, who had a game-high 27 points and made 6 of 8 from long range Friday, shot 0-for-9 from distance and finished with 11 points. Nendah Tarke led the Eagles (9-23) with 16 points but made just 1 of 8 from behind the arc.
It was a different story early. CSU scored its first four baskets on 3-pointers and was tied 12-12 after the first 12 minutes. Norfolk State led 24-20 in a slow-moving first half.
Norfolk State’s critical juncture
The game was halted with 17:26 left in the second half with Norfolk State up 32-22, its first double-digit lead of the game. Officials reviewed a tussle under the basket between Hawkins and CSU big man Justin Steers for five minutes.
Technical fouls were called on both players. Zarzuela missed both free throws for CSU and Bryant converted both for NSU. On the ensuing possession, Hawkins drained a three to put the Spartans up 37-22. The five-point swing swung the momentum heavily towards the Spartans.
The Eagles only cut the deficit below double-digits once from there, at 47-39 with 11:41 left.
Norfolk State, with a sterling 24-6 mark, will be looking for a seeding much better than the play-in position that followed last season’s 16-8 record.
NSU head coach Robert Jones was named the tournament’s top coach.