March 15, 2024 

Freshmen sparkplugs inject new energy into latest chapter of the Howard-Norfolk State rivalry

Howard and Norfolk State are meeting for the third straight year in the MEAC Tournament championship with plenty of talented newcomers playing a key part.

NORFOLK, Va. – It’s the rubber match.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

For the third consecutive year, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) women’s basketball tournament will be decided between top-seeded Norfolk State and second-seeded Howard. These two heavyweights will collide at the historic Scope Arena on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.

This is the collegiate version of the Lynx and Sparks showdowns from the mid-2010s.

Howard is making its fourth straight trip to the MEAC tournament championship contest. This is also the ninth meeting between these programs in the last three years and the second in less than 10 days. These teams have seen each other so much recently that they probably know what kind of mouthwash, toothpaste and laundry detergent each player uses.

“It’s two really good teams competing and two well-coached teams,” Howard head coach Ty Grace said during her postgame press conference after the Bison defeated North Carolina Central, 69-56, in the MEAC semifinals. “I enjoy coaching against [NSU head coach] Larry Vickers and he’s a great coach. They have two phenomenal players who can take over the game and we have phenomenal players so I think it will be a good game.”

Norfolk State’s Diamond Johnson and MEAC Player of the Year Kierra Wheeler—who combined for 49 points in a 73-44 semifinal win over Coppin State—are the players Grace was referencing. Through two MEAC tournament games, the opponent-wilting duo of Johnson and Wheeler have scored 58.7 percent of Norfolk State’s points.

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

Meanwhile, Howard’s Kaiya Creek and Iyanna Warren were just as effective, scoring 21 points each in the victory over North Carolina Central.

Howard guard Iyanna Warren (left) scored 21 points in the MEAC semifinals against North Carolina Central. (Photo credit: MEAC)

The series is split at four games apiece over the past three seasons. Howard won the championship in 2022, 61-46, and Norfolk State won last year, 56-52. Each program subsequently had the experience of playing South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans are looking to become the first program to repeat as MEAC champions for the first time since 2014 when Hampton finished its run of five straight MEAC tournament championships.

“It’s a rivalry based on respect,” Vickers said. “I respect everybody involved in their program from their strength coach to their head coach. They have great players. We know them well and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to compete against Howard again. We’ve alternated championships the last two years and we don’t want to do that this year.”

The names and numbers change for Norfolk State and Howard but not the winning or the expectations of being the last two MEAC programs standing in mid-March. This year’s championship contest will feature fresh faces in three of the MEAC’s top freshmen—Norfolk State’s Da’Brya Clark and Anjanae Richardson and Howard’s Tyana Walker—looking to build upon each program’s legacy of excellence. That trio of players combined to claim 12 of the MEAC’s 15 Rookie of the Week awards this season.

Each player is excited about the opportunity to compete in their first MEAC championship contest while adding to the growing scrapbook of memories in this latest Howard-Norfolk State chapter. Walker, the MEAC Rookie of the Year and All-First Team MEAC selection, sat in the stands last year as Howard lost to Norfolk State. It’s a moment that has fueled the redshirt freshman from Leawood, Kan.

“It was a helpless feeling,” said Walker, Howard’s second-leading scorer this season. “Watching the game, I felt like I could’ve done this or done that, but in that moment it’s nothing for me to do but to cheer my team on and come back next year and fight for another one.”

Norfolk State’s Niya Fields and Howard’s Kaiya Creek have played in all three championship games against each other. Fields has a unique perspective of the upcoming showdown between the Bison and Spartans.

“I wouldn’t say a rivalry but it’s that repeating story and the game that everybody wants,” Fields said to The Next in the hallway outside of the interview room. “It seems like this year is their revenge and get-back just like last year was our revenge and get-back. It’s the story that everyone wants to see on both ends. I wouldn’t say rivalry, it’s just a good game to watch.”

It will also be fun to play in a high-level contest with a lot on the line as the winner will secure the MEAC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Norfolk State freshman Da’Brya guard Clark was named to the All-MEAC Rookie Team, and she will be one of three impactful freshmen competing in her first MEAC Tournament championship contest. (Photo credit: MEAC)

Despite opposite personalities, the Spartan’s freshman duo of Clark and Richardson is united by a shared purpose. Clark is outgoing. Richardson doesn’t like to talk a lot. Together, they have made sweet music and been perfect pieces for the Norfolk State women’s basketball machine.

“From being here in the summer every day playing with my teammates and leading up to now, we have been anticipating this moment,” Clark said to The Next. “Seeing our intro hype video (featuring Norfolk State championship highlights) before every game has always fueled that hunger in us all year that made us ready for this opportunity.”

Want even more women’s sports in your inbox?

Subscribe now to our sister publication The IX and receive our independent women’s sports newsletter six days a week. Learn more about your favorite athletes and teams around the world competing in soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, hockey and gymnastics from our incredible team of writers.

Readers of The Next now save 50% on their subscription to The IX.

A biology major, Clark is a five-time MEAC Rookie of the Week selection who has scored in double digits nine times this season. Richardson captured the MEAC Rookie of the Week honor in January. Richardson had to make a significant adjustment as in high school, she was used to having the ball all the time.

“In high school, I had to facilitate, score, and set the tone,” Richardson said. “Here. I’ve had to change my role and play off the ball. It was tough for me, but I feel like I’ve adjusted well thanks to a good group of teammates around me who helped me a lot. It’s been being part of this program. Da’Brya and I got here in June and we’ve been working so hard for this moment.”

Vickers has enjoyed watching the progression of his two standout freshmen.

“In today’s game, Anjanae didn’t score the ball well, but she made a lot of passes to get Diamond open,” Vickers remarked while standing in the warmth of the Norfolk Admirals locker room. “Her growth in understanding the complexity of a college offense has been huge for us. For Da’Brya, she’s learning how to be a leader, a captain, and a point guard. She came in right away for us today, scored the ball for us, and made some great reads.”

Clark has a winning past as she played at Baltimore Poly-Tech High School under head coach Kendall Peace, who is a coaching legend in the state of Maryland with over 400 career victories. Being able to flourish at Poly Tech has helped Clark bring her winning ways to Norfolk State.

Last month when Norfolk State made its Baltimore swing to play Coppin State and Morgan State, Clark was greeted by familiar faces, colorful signs with her photo on them, and just lots of love.

“I feel like the things my high school coach instilled in me, just like my basketball IQ and communication skills, have helped me a lot. I am so grateful for that. It’s been great to learn from the veterans on our team like Niya who is a great teammate on and off the court. It’s been a fun year.”

Howard’s Tyana Walker sat in the stands last season and watched as Howard fell to Norfolk State, 56-52. This season, she’s Howard’s second-leading scorer and the MEAC’s Rookie of the Year. (Photo: MEAC)

Meanwhile, despite some adversity, including MEAC Preseason Player of the Year Destiny Howell suffering a season-ending injury during preseason, Howard never doubted it would get back to the championship game. It’s part of its championship DNA. Howard has gotten contributions all over its lineup during the season, and Grace’s squad is confident and prepared for the Spartans.

“There was uncertainty when Destiny went down but people had to figure out who they were going to be and what roles they were going to have,” Grace added. “When we figured it out, you see the result. No one ever gave up; we were just a little unsure. Once we started putting some things together, this is what you get. I am so proud of them that they keep returning to the championship.”

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.