Regardless of whether Norfolk State wins the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament, the Spartans are headed to postseason play for the second season in a row.
Norfolk State throttled Florida A&M 69-58 on Monday night at Echols Hall to earn the MEAC regular-season title and top seeding in next week’s conference tournament at Scope.
The Spartans hope to defend last season’s MEAC tournament title and bid to the NCAA tournament. If not, the regular-season title guarantees a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
The victory was the 14th in a row for the Spartans (20-10, 15-0 MEAC), the longest winning streak by a Norfolk State team since 1994-95. Norfolk State is tied with Davidson for the third-longest winning streak in Division I.
Coach Anthony Evans said winning the regular-season championship “was a major accomplishment” for a team that lost four starters from last season, including NBA draft pick Kyle O’Quinn.
The team faced adversity, especially with an early-season schedule that took the Spartans on the road for 14 of their first 16 games. They had injury problems in the early season and lost five in a row in late December and early January. Yet they haven’t lost since Jan. 2 at Ball State on a dunk as time expired.
“Everybody thought this was going to be a rebuilding year for us,” said junior guard Pendarvis Williams, Norfolk State’s only returning starter.
“Everybody thought we were going to be bad because we lost Kyle. He was a very important part of our team, but we were deep, we had a lot of good players.
“The coaches picked us fourth in the conference. We took that personally. We wanted to do better than what the team did last year. And we did.”
The Spartans blew out to an early 18-point lead then, as has been their habit, gave away nearly all of it.
Florida A&M (8-21, 5-10) cut the lead to 33-31 just 30 seconds into the second half on a layup by Markee Teal. The comeback began when the Rattlers changed from a zone defense into a man-for man that appeared to rattle the Spartans.
“I give them credit,” Evans said. “They started pressuring us and came up with some turnovers. And we got a little complacent.”
However, unlike its last three games, when Norfolk State won in the final seconds, the Spartans won this one going away.
Norfolk State led by four with 8:28 left and then scored nine unanswered points over three minutes to take a 62-49 lead and control of the game.
Freshman Rashid Gaston came off the bench to score a career-high 20 points and pull down 10 rebounds. Gaston was named MEAC Rookie of the Week earlier Monday for the fourth time this season.
Williams added 14 points, including five during the three-minute stretch when the Spartans took control. Brandon Goode added 10.
Norfolk State hopes to become the first MEAC team since Coppin State 19 years ago to finish unbeaten in conference play when it concludes its regular season Thursday night at home against North Carolina A&T.
No matter what, Evans said, this team has made its mark.
“We were inexperienced,” he said. “There were some bumps along the road. But it all helped us to get better.
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