Norfolk St takes MEAC title, 73-70 over Bethune
By JOEDY McCREARY
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) With one slip on the court, Kyle O'Quinn nearly went from hero to goat for Norfolk State. Then the Spartans came up with the final defensive stop that allowed their star to finally exhale.
O'Quinn scored 18 points and Norfolk State held on to beat Bethune-Cookman 73-70 on Saturday for its first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and first NCAA tournament berth.
Pendarvis Williams had 17 points for the second-seeded Spartans (25-9), who led by 14 and shot nearly 44 percent but couldn't seal it until they locked down late on Bethune-Cookman shooter Kevin Dukes.
"We were trying to make somebody else make a play," Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said.
Dukes scored 18 points and hit four 3-pointers, and Javoris Bryant added 15 points for the fourth-seeded Wildcats (18-17).
They pulled within three on Garrius Holloman's basket with 19.7 seconds left, then had the ball and one last chance to force overtime after O'Quinn slipped with the ball near midcourt and was called for traveling with 16.9 seconds remaining.
That gave the ball to the Wildcats, who called a screen to get Dukes a clean look.
"It's hard to guard if you don't know it's coming," Bethune-Cookman coach Gravelle Craig said. "They (saw) it and they jumped it. They weren't going to let our best 3-point shooter get a 3-point shot."
After that fell apart, Bethune-Cookman had trouble organizing and Holloman hoisted a straightaway 3-pointer with 5 seconds left that bounced off the rim. Ricky Johnson put up a 3 through contact at the buzzer, but when it missed, the Spartans spilled onto the court in celebration.
Rob Johnson - a former Marist player who's one of five Division I transfers in the rotation - scored 15 points for Norfolk State, which won its seventh straight.
Now, after winning their first postseason tournament in 15 years at this level, the Spartans are ready for their shot at a much bigger one. They lost their only other previous appearance in the title game to Morgan State in 2009.
They entered this one with an unofficial RPI ranking of 132 and a schedule-strength rating of 308th that's mostly a consequence of playing in one of the weakest conferences in Division I, though they did beat Drexel - by most accounts, a bubble team - by five points in November.
"We're going in with the confidence that we can win it. We can win it all," O'Quinn said. "Not going in just going, `We won the MEAC and let's just experience it.' We've got to go in with that focus. If we're in it, we might as well try to win it."
They won their previous two MEAC tournament games by at least 10 points apiece, and looked as if they were going to make it three straight double-figure wins when Rob Johnson's jumper with 8 1/2 minutes left made it 52-38.
O'Quinn - the league's regular-season MVP who also was selected the most outstanding player at the tournament - was 6 of 12 from the field and hit all six of his free throws.
"I take those because they have my name on them," O'Quinn said. "But I give them right back to my teammates."
The problem was, they were just 2 of 4 from the line in the final minute to give the Wildcats one final chance.
The Wildcats overcame a chilly 10 1/2-minute stretch in which they missed 13 of 14 shots, and trailed by 14 with 7 1/2 minutes left before a late 11-3 run got them back in the game. They closed to 59-53 on Holloman's follow-up dunk with 4 1/2 minutes left.
"We were letting them drive to the basket," Evans said. "They were being aggressive, but we weren't cutting them off, and it was creating havoc for the defense."
Norfolk State pulled away at the end of the first half, closing it with 12 straight points and holding the Wildcats without a field goal for the final 6 minutes while pushing its lead into double figures for the first time.
During that stretch O'Quinn did it all for the Spartans. He hit three jumpers and swatted away Holloman's layup with about 1 1/2 minutes left, and about 30 seconds later, his pretty kick-out from the post set up Chris McEachin's wide-open 3-pointer that made it 35-22.
"Norfolk's been here before," Craig said, "and we were a little deer-in-the-headlights early."
Updated March 10, 2012