A marvelous basketball season ended on a sour note for Norfolk State on Tuesday as the Spartans fell to the University of Virginia on a night when, had they shot better, they might have won.
The Cavaliers pulled away from Norfolk State in the final minutes to defeat the Spartans, 67-56, in a first-round National Invitation Tournament game at John Paul Jones Arena.
Norfolk State rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to trim the margin to three in the game’s final minutes. But the Spartans made just 27 percent of their shots and couldn’t muster enough offense to come all the way back.
U.Va. (22-11) will host St. John’s either Sunday or Monday in the second round of the NIT. Had the Spartans won, they would be headed to New York to face the Red Storm.
Norfolk State (21-12) won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title, becoming the first MEAC team to go 16-0 in 19 seasons.
But the Spartans fell in overtime to Bethune-Cookman in the quarterfinals of the MEAC tournament, and thus were denied a chance to return to the NCAA Tournament, where they upset No. 2 seeded Missouri last season.
After winning their last 15 regular-season games in a row, the Spartans finished with two postseason losses.
The losses takes nothing away from what this team accomplished, said Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans, whose Spartans lost four starters from last season, including second-round NBA draft pick Kyle O’Quinn.
“There wasn’t much expectation coming into this season,” he said. “No one thought we would accomplish what we have.
“Despite the two losses, our guys did a great job going 16-0 in the conference. There’s nothing but pride that I feel for our basketball team.”
Rob Johnson, a senior from suburban Atlanta, and guard Pendarvis Williams led the Spartans with 16 points each. Forward Malcom Hawkins added 12.
U.Va., one of the last teams eliminated from the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, won in spite of shooting poorly from the foul line and struggling against Norfolk State’s press.
Justin Anderson and Akil Mitchell scored 15 points apiece to lead the Cavaliers, combining for three dunks in the final minutes, as U.Va. opened up a doudle-digit lead.
The Cavs likely were eliminated from the NCAA tournament by losses to poor teams, including a 63-61 defeat to Old Dominion, and by their inability to win on the road.
However, the Cavaliers have been nearly invincible this season at home, winning 18 games in a row.
The game was marred by 47 fouls.
“It was not a pretty game,” said U.Va. coach Tony Bennett, who claimed game officials called the game too tightly. “But to be able to come away with one while not playing well is important.
“In the end, it became a free-throw shooting contest.”
Norfolk State kept it relatively close by making 22 of 28 foul shots, including 19 in the second half.
Norfolk State trailed by 10 after a first half in which the Spartans made just 18 percent of their shots. U.Va. expanded the lead to 37-24 six minutes into the second half.
However, with 11 minutes left, Norfolk State went into a full-court press that rattled the Cavaliers, forcing two turnovers, and allowed the Spartans to get close.
With five minutes left, Hawkins rebounded his own missed shot and laid the ball into the basket to trim the margin to 47-44. However, the Spartans got no closer.
“Not much was expected of us this season,” said Williams, a junior from Philadelphia. “We were able to shock a lot of people.”
Johnson may eventually will come to appreciate that.
“But right now, I’m disappointed,” he said. “We had goals and we didn’t reach all of them.
“This season wasn’t a failure. We accomplished a lot. But to end like this, it’s disappointing.”
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