NORFOLK, Va. — Driven by a gritty defensive performance, No. 3 seed Norfolk State took down No. 2 seed North Carolina Central 72-65 in overtime at Norfolk Scope Arena on Friday night, sending the Spartans to the MEAC Tournament Championship game.
Joe Bryant Jr., the 2022-23 MEAC Player of the Year, willed the Spartans (22-10, 9-5 MEAC) to victory in the extra period, scoring 10 points including a flurry of clutch free throws. The fifth-year guard finished with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double, while Kris Bankston added points and eight rebounds.
Both teams needed some time to get their offensive rhythm going, with Bryant scoring the night's first points after about two and a half minutes of action. Tate got a 3-pointer to fall soon after, though, giving the Spartans an early 5-0 lead.
The Eagles wouldn't get on the scoreboard until the 11:33 mark of the first half, coming away unsuccessful on their first 10 shot attempts.
Tate knocked down another three to expand Norfolk State's lead to nine, and Cahiem Brown pushed the advantage to double-digits with a floating bank shot.
Norfolk State went ahead by as much as 11 in the first half, but North Carolina Central ended the half on a 9-0 run, trimming the deficit to just two at the break.
The Eagles momentum carried into the second half, as NCCU took their first lead of the game at the 17:01 mark.
But Jack Doumbia provided a spark off the bench, just as he'd done the previous night, first finding Bankston in the paint for a two-handed dunk. Moments later, Doumbia's chasedown rejection on an Eagles' fastbreak set up a reverse slam for Bankston on the other end.
The Spartans continued to apply pressure. Bryant finished a speedy fastbreak to force a North Carolina Central timeout, but the break didn't slow NSU down. Brown scored an and-one off a steal on the next possession.
By the time North Carolina Central's Fred Cleveland Jr. knocked down a 3-pointer to get the Eagles some positive energy, Norfolk State had completed a 13-0 run to regain control of the game.
North Carolina Central got back within one possession moments later, but Bankston responded with a crucial 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock, just the second three-ball of his career.
The Spartans did what they needed to down the stretch: make free throws. Cahiem Brown shot 8-of-9 from the charity stripe in the second half and Bryant went 8-of-10. Terrance Jones knocked down a pair of free throws in the final ten seconds of regulation to put NSU ahead by three.
But North Carolina Central guard Justin Wright willed the Eagles into overtime regardless, knocking down an acrobatic 3-pointer with just one second left on the clock.
The wild shot turned the game from a thriller into an instant classic, but the Spartans ensured they come out on the winning side of the historic night, commanding the final five minutes.
After being held to just two made field goals in regulation, Bryant erupted in overtime. The guard started the period with two inside buckets, eventually hitting six free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
The Spartans will face No. 1-seed Howard in the MEAC Championship game at the Norfolk Scope on Saturday, March 11 at 1 p.m. The Bison won both regular season meetings between the longtime rivals this year.
If the Spartans can defeat Howard on Saturday, they will become just the season team since 2000 to win three consecutive MEAC Tournament titles. A conference championship victory would also secure NSU an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.