March 21, 2024 

How Norfolk State and Jackson State can earn monumental victories

Tomekia Reed: 'We want people who watch to respect HBCUs'

Jackson State and Norfolk State weren’t seeded 16th. 

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That’s great news for a pair of programs that have been excellent for a few years. It’s a slight sign of growth that the committee is beginning to recognize the brilliance of what Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed and Norfolk State head coach Larry Vickers have built.

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The Tigers earned the No. 14 seed in the Portland 3 regional, and the Spartans were seeded 15th in the Portland 4 regional, which is still disrespectful to the work of each program that established a single-season school-record victory total. Jackson State ended the season ranked 10th in the Mid-Major Top 25 poll, and earned at least one vote in the last three Associated Press Top 25 polls. Meanwhile, Norfolk State finished ranked 13th in the Mid-Major Top 25.

Jackson State and Norfolk State have churned out winners, season after season, like an assembly line, overseen by a pair of architects of excellence: Reed and Vickers. The Tigers and Spartans compete with ferocity and a chip on their shoulders the size of Mount Rushmore that comes from the need to consistently prove something. 

Not happy with their seeding, the Tigers and Spartans enter March with even more fuel and purpose. Don’t tell Reed and Vickers they should be satisfied they weren’t seeded 16th. The committee should value each program’s consistent greatness because sometimes metrics don’t always do justice. 

Nothing can be changed now as each program prepares for its most significant challenges of the season against a pair of tremendous basketball programs that have combined to win 14 national championships and iconic coaches who have combined to win 2,422 basketball games. 

Jackson State (26-5 overall) will battle No. 3 seed Connecticut (29-5) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET inside Gampel Pavilion on ABC. Norfolk State (27-5) will meet No. 2 seed Stanford (28-5) on Friday at 10 p.m. at Maples Pavilion on ESPN2. 

With talented players on each team capable of creating improvisational flourishes when they have the ball, Jackson State and Norfolk State are confident they can bust a few brackets and destroy office pools. Both teams are feisty, captivating, and fun to watch.

Jackson State has won a school record 26 games as it prepares to head to UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers during a game earlier this season. (Photo credit: Jackson State Athletics Communications)
Jackson State has won a school record 26 games as it prepares to head to UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (Photo credit: Jackson State Athletics Communications)

“We’re going to play hard,” Reed told The Next on the phone earlier this week before leaving for Storrs. “This is not a David vs. Goliath matchup. We must play basketball, execute, and be who we’ve been all year. That’s what we are telling our players. They can get stops, score the ball, and compete on this big platform.”

Last year, Vickers matched wits against Dawn Staley, who was impressed with his program. Now, he goes up against Tara VanDerveer, the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history. Two years ago, Reed was a No. 14 seed against LSU and head coach Kim Mulkey, another legend. She’ll match strategies with the one and only Geno Auriemma. 

“Geno is legendary,” said Reed, who was named Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) Coach of the Year for the third straight year and fourth time in her career. “When I was younger, I watched his teams play. I watched how he coached, and I’ve seen him at his best and worst regarding what we go through as coaches. This is a time I get to coach against one of the best in the country. He’s somebody I’ve always wanted to coach against. I look up to him. Our program is excited about the challenge and matchup. We can complain about our seed. Thankful to be a 14 seed and included in the tournament. We have to keep working, grinding, and getting better, so one day, we’ll be one of the 11 or 12 seeds in the tournament.”

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Reed’s off to a great start in her career. In her sixth season as head coach of the Jackson State women’s basketball program, Reed has led her program to its fifth consecutive SWAC regular-season Championship, which includes two undefeated conference campaigns in the last three years. As head coach of the Tigers, she has never had a losing record. 

Jackson State has a 32-game regular season winning streak against SWAC opponents and finished with at least 20 wins for the third time.

Jackson State getting a national broadcast is monumental for the program and its university. The game may be on ABC because of UConn’s national appeal, the storyline of whether it can return to the Final Four after falling in the Sweet 16 last year, and, of course, Paige Bueckers. Caitlin Clark and Iowa play the second game on ABC on Saturday. So, ABC is maximizing its ratings potential, which is fine with Reed.

The nationally televised platform is also an opportunity to showcase the excellence and quality of HBCU women’s basketball. This season, SWAC programs Grambling State (Arizona State), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Arkansas), and Southern (Oklahoma) defeated Power Five programs, and Coppin State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) earned a victory at Pittsburgh.

“This is not just a regular game for us,” Reed said. “We want people who watch to respect HBCUs. We will continue knocking down walls and making a name for ourselves. We also want to protect what we have built and our names. Playing on ABC at this stage greatly benefits our program and university. I am excited to showcase who I am as a coach and who we are as a program.”

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Kierra Wheeler (right in white) battling for a loose ball in last week’s MEAC Tournament championship game. (Photo credit: MEAC)

Norfolk State junior forward and MEAC Player of the Year Kierra Wheeler is appreciative of the opportunity she has to represent Norfolk State and the entire HBCU community. Wheeler was fortunate to play in a nationally televised game against Howard in its season finale on ESPNU earlier this month. It was the only women’s contest from an HBCU conference broadcast nationally on the ESPN family of networks this season. Another sign of growth.

“HBCUs are here,” said Wheeler, who placed her black phone on top of a vending machine in the Echols Hall lobby before stepping in front of the green-and-gold backdrop to speak with media members earlier in the week. “We are relevant and deserve a platform like anybody else. It’s time to take it up a notch. Coach Vickers guides us, and he tells us we might be the underdogs, but we’re still here, and we need to enjoy the moment.” 

By doing what each team does best, here are three keys for each program that could place them in the best position to unlock a monumental victory.

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Jackson State: Defensive Poise, Rebounding, and Bench Efficiency 

With a 21-game winning streak entering the UConn game, Jackson State’s foundation has been its defense. In HerHoopStats rankings, The Tigers are second in field goal percentage defense (34.3), two-point field goal percentage defense (37.0), and opponents’ effective field goal percentage (38.0). They are third in points per possession on defense (0.86). 

UConn will test the Tigers’ defense as it is third nationally in field goal percentage (49.9).

The Tigers had three players earn All-Conference recognition: Angel Jackson, named SWAC Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season; Ti’Ian Boler, and Miya Crump, who were All-SWAC First Team selections. Boler averages 11.7 points per game, and Crump scores 11.6 points per outing. 

Jackson State has players who played with and against UConn in the past, which reduces the awe factor of playing one of the sport’s best programs. Jackson State also owns a 60-55 victory over Big East foe St. John’s.

Crump played at Houston when UConn was a member of the American Athletic Conference. Jackson and Edwards played on the USA Basketball team together. Jackson anchors the Jackson State defense. She’s fourth in the nation in blocked shots per game (2.97). She has 95 blocked shots for the season.

SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Angel Jackson is fourth in the nation in blocked shots per game (2.97). She has 95 blocked shots for the season. (Photo credit: Jackson State Athletic Media Relations)

“My defense gets my offense going,” said the 6’5 Jackson, who played three years at USC. “It’s never go out and straight to offense for me. I am focused on getting stops. When we get a stop and score each time, it energizes me, raising our energy level as a team. Playing UConn on ABC is amazing because you don’t see many HBCU women’s basketball programs on ABC. It’s an honor to show the world what we can do as a program and show Jackson State is coming.”

Jackson State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and it will need to be at a high level. The Tigers are ninth in offensive rebounds per game (16.0) and 11th overall in rebounding (43.4). Meanwhile, UConn is 80th in rebounds per game (38.7) and tied for 252nd in offensive rebounds per game (10.2). Of course, when a team shoots a high percentage like UConn, there aren’t many offensive rebounds available.

“I was excited when we learned we’d be playing UConn,” Jackson said. “We’re looking forward to playing on a bigger stage against the best to show we can compete on the highest level. While watching the selection show, we didn’t worry about who we would play. We’ll show up and play our game.”

With UConn having seven players, mind you, high-level players, Jackson State could enjoy an edge when it goes to its bench. Jackson State is 13th nationally in bench points per game (27.0). In the SWAC Tournament, the Tigers got 38 percent of their points from the bench in outscoring Prairie View A&M, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Alcorn State, 78-27. Adrianna Avent, Jackson State’s leading scorer at 12.3 points per game, is a sixth-woman supreme. She was named SWAC Tournament MVP. 

“The transfer portal has helped because when you bring players into your program that’s played at Power Five schools and against some of these players,” Reed said. “It levels the playing field and removes the thought of what we can’t do. Talent is filtered down to programs like ours, allowing our game to be respected, marketable, and competitive. 

“Angel is special because she protects the rim. She’s one of the best rim protectors in terms of timing blocks and knowing what she needs to do. I’ve watched her grow, and she has turned into one heck of a player. We are a much better team when she’s on the floor. She’s smart, knows how to rotate, and brings so much to the game.” 

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Norfolk State: Diamond’s Experience, Defensive Tenacity, and Limit Turnovers

Norfolk State has a tall order going against Cameron Brink; the 6’4 center is likely a top-three WNBA Draft pick and finalist for the Lisa Leslie Center of the Year Award. 

Brink, the Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year, was named a first-team All-American by both The Sporting News and USBWA and a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year honors. Brink is the nation’s leading active shot blocker with 406 in her career and recently became the 17th Division I player with 400 career rejections. She leads the country in total blocks (109) and blocks per game (3.52).

While Stanford isn’t a one-woman team, Norfolk State is headed across the country, believing it has all the tools to win. For perspective, Wheeler is 6’1. She’s one of three Spartans over six feet. Four, if you count Vickers, who is 6’7. Meanwhile, Stanford’s roster features seven players over six feet. 

Of course, height is a state of mind. 

The Spartans did face South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardosa in last year’s first-round contest. So they won’t be surprised or intimidated by Brink. 

“We know Cameron Brink,” Wheeler said. “I like her intensity on defense. We learned from last year’s game against South Carolina to keep your hands up and be dominant down low. Also, the bigs at that level aren’t afraid to push you, so don’t be afraid to push back. Overall, we have to continue to stay connected.”

Wheeler, who averages 17.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest, is used to competing against bigger and stronger players. She won’t be intimidated playing against Stanford’s trees (not the mascot). Norfolk State also features 5’3 dynamic guard Diamond Johnson, who has NCAA Tournament experience from her time at Rutgers and North Carolina State. Wheeler and Johnson scored 58.7% of Norfolk State’s points during the MEAC Tournament.

Diamond Johnson drives to the hoop
Diamond Johnson has played in five NCAA Tournament games and has averaged 10.3 points per game. (Photo credit: Norfolk State Athletics)

Johnson came off the bench during the Wolfpack’s Elite Eight run in 2022. Johnson has averaged 10.3 points per game in five career NCAA tournament games. She scored 15 points against Kansas State in the 2022 second round. 

Her ability to shoot from deep will be essential for the Spartans. She averages 2.9 made 3-pointers per game on 40.3 percent shooting. Although she didn’t play enough games to be ranked nationally, Johnson’s marksmanship will alleviate the headache of needlessly attacking Brink in the paint. Johnson has scored at least 20 or more points in four of Norfolk State’s last seven games. 

“We know we have to play our hardest,” Johnson said during Norfolk State’s media availability before practice earlier this week. “We know they’re going to capitalize on our mistakes, so we have to focus on doing the little things like boxing out, rebounding, getting back on defense, and staying disciplined.” 

The Spartans’ success has been due to their defense, which will need to be at an elite level against Stanford. Norfolk State forces 21.3 turnovers per game, which is sixth nationally. The sticky-fingered Spartans are fourth in the nation in steals per game (12.6). 

Norfolk State is second in the nation in opponent points per possession (76.7) and third in defensive points per play (0.67) in the latest HerHoops statistics. Norfolk State has allowed the third-fewest field goals in the country (552) and the least two-point baskets (376). 

The Spartans are also third in points per game allowed (52.5) and ninth in field goal percentage defense (35.7). Norfolk State hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 60 points in 14 consecutive contests. Norfolk State held South Carolina State, Coppin State, and Howard to under 50 points in winning the MEAC Tournament championship. 

The poise of freshmen Da’Brya Clark and Anjanae Richardson will be critical for the Spartans as the duo will play their first NCAA Tournament contest. Guard Niya Fields will control the ball for the Spartans. She led the MEAC in assists per game (4.0).

Johnson has been asked to provide advice since she has the most experience in the tournament. 

“My teammates always ask me what players I have played against, and I’ve played against some good ones,” Johnson said. “I’ve never played against Stanford, but at this point, everybody is 0-0. Winning the MEAC and preparing for the NCAA Tournament is unreal because I wasn’t even on the court a couple of months ago, and a lot was going through my mind. It’s just nice to know that the goals and dreams we had as a team have come true.”

So, there are a few keys for each program accustomed to success and who have good players. 

If two teams can find a way to win at UConn and Stanford, Jackson State and Norfolk State can make it happen. In addition to being gloriously unafraid, they are dreaming big and competing with their heart. March is a month where the improbable sometimes becomes possible. 

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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