March 17, 2024 

Jackson State and Norfolk State are focused on doing some NCAA Tournament damage

Both programs are confident in their ability to make plenty of noise during March

Jackson State and Norfolk State completed the championship climbs to the top of their conferences. Now, both programs have their sights set on busting NCAA Tournament brackets and making history.

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All season long, Jackson State and Norfolk State were the standard-bearers of excellence for the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), respectively. In addition to being ranked in almost all the Top 25 polls during the regular season, Jackson State and Norfolk State have elevated women’s basketball in the SWAC and MEAC the last few years, along with Grambling State and Howard.

Jackson State received a vote in the last two Associated Press Top 25 polls, which means there’s respect for the quality of basketball played in the SWAC and MEAC.

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Yet, no matter how easy Jackson State’s 68-44 victory over Alcorn State in the SWAC championship looked to casual observers, it wasn’t. In running their winning streak to 21 games, the Tigers had been focused all season on a singular purpose, realizing a single misstep could derail their goal of winning the SWAC title.

The Tigers won their ninth SWAC Tournament and their third under head coach Tomekia Reed. Andriana Avent led the Tigers with 17 points; she was one of three players scoring in double figures. Ti’Ian Boler added 13 points and seven rebounds, and Hayleigh Breland chipped in with 11 points and three steals off the bench. Angel Jackson blocked six shots.

Avent was named the SWAC Most Outstanding performer of the tournament, and Bolen was named to the All-Tournament team.

“I am super excited,” said Reed, wearing a red SWAC champs’ hat and the net around her neck during the postgame press conference. “Our team has been preparing for this moment since the summer. My coaches did a phenomenal job recruiting a great class to come in and bring the trophy back home. We have not lost the feeling from last year, when Southern upset us in the tournament.”

The players, staff and cheerleaders of the Norfolk State women’s basketball program pose on the court after winning the 2024 MEAC Tournament
The 2024 MEAC Tournament champion Norfolk State women’s basketball program. (Photo credit: MEAC)

Meanwhile, Norfolk State rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to edge a game Howard squad 51-46 in Norfolk, Virginia. The Spartans, winners of 15 straight games, made a few key plays late to become the first MEAC program to repeat as tournament champions since 2014, when Hampton won the last of its five straight crowns.

The Spartans rode the wave of MEAC Player of the Year Kierra Wheeler, who collected her 14th double-double of the season with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Diamond Johnson, named the MEAC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, scored 12 points. All-Rookie Team member Da’Brya Clark made her presence known on defense, finishing with three steals and two blocks.

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Wheeler and Johnson scored 58.7% of Norfolk State’s points during the MEAC Tournament.

“Last year, when we went, I got a special feeling when I saw that NCAA March Madness banner as I approached the arena,” said Norfolk State head coach Larry Vickers during the MEAC postgame press conference. “I think we were happy to be there last year. But we now feel that if we rebound the basketball, play defense and make some of those shots, we can play with anybody.”

With dynamite, experienced players and top-notch coaches in Reed and Vickers, both Jackson State and Norfolk could do some damage next week in the NCAA Tournament with the perfect matchups. Both teams are currently projected as No. 15 seeds. (The brackets will be announced Sunday at 8 p.m. on ESPN.)

Jackson State’s Andriana Avent runs down the court
SWAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Andriana Avent led the Tigers with 17 points; she was one of three players scoring in double figures. (Photo credit: SWAC)

Both programs deserve to be seeded higher. Players celebrated with one another during happy moments throughout the season and remained united during tough times. Their character sustained them through adversity while providing the strength needed to compete with a determination to dominate each game.

Through times of cramping muscles, bone-weary fatigue, bruises and knee-skinning scrambles for loose balls and steals, Norfolk State and Jackson State always kept their eyes on the prize of winning. They got every team’s best effort each night and responded positively.

It was mind-boggling watching Jackson State dispatch its three SWAC tournament opponents by 18.3 points per game with the precision of a seasoned surgeon. The Tigers arrived in Birmingham determined to reverse last season’s bitter ending when they lost on a buzzer-beater in the SWAC semifinals to Southern.

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That loss motivated Jackson State all summer and through an undefeated SWAC regular-season campaign. The Tigers have won 32 consecutive SWAC regular-season games. Last year, when the team lost to Southern in the SWAC semifinals, Reed remembers the players crying and hyperventilating in the locker room. She never wanted to feel that pain again.

“When we lost last year, I had nightmares and a lot of sleepless nights,” Reed said. “I would tell my players about my dream of Southern taking the trophy out of my house. It was tough. This has been our driving force all year. I told my team in the locker room that we’d worked too hard to let it go and come too far to let it slip away. This team is so special. We’ve been through many challenges this year, and people don’t see them, but we’ve grown through them together.”

Norfolk State used its regular-season loss to Howard on Jan. 20 as fuel to finish strong. After that setback, the Spartans created hardwood masterpieces and won 12 of their final 15 games by double digits, including four by at least 30 points.

Beating Howard for the second time in fewer than 10 days took work for the Spartans, who trailed 36-33 entering the fourth quarter. Norfolk State held all three of its MEAC Tournament opponents below 50 points.

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“They play a matchup zone like no one we have played,” Vickers said of Howard. “You could see its impact where we were tentative at times, and it resulted in missed layups. We prided ourselves on our defense and were able to make stops down the stretch.”

This will be Norfolk State’s second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. After last year’s first-round setback to South Carolina, head coach Dawn Staley had nothing but praise for the Spartans and Vickers’ job in building the program. In a moment that went viral, Staley entered the Norfolk State locker room following the game to share her thoughts with the Spartans.

Norfolk State’s Niya Fields celebrates in a crowd on the court
Norfolk State senior guard Niya Fields is a two-time MEAC Tournament champion. (Photo credit: Norfolk State Athletics)

“When Dawn came into the locker room, it definitely built up our confidence and maybe made our heads a little bit bigger,” Norfolk State senior guard Niya Fields said following the team’s semifinal win over Coppin State on Friday. “It was a confidence booster and gave us extra motivation going into this year that if Dawn Staley says we’re not a 16-seed, then we must believe that and not play like a 16-seed. It boosted our hunger going into this season, and we are focused on being seeded higher than 16.”

Two years ago, behind the brilliance of Ameshya Williams-Holliday, whom the Indiana Fever drafted, Jackson State led LSU by 10 points in the fourth quarter in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Williams-Holliday was the first HBCU player drafted in the WNBA since 2002. Jackson State and Norfolk State have the talent, athleticism, depth and hunger to win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament.

“Whoever we play, we’re going to go in and be competitive,” Reed said. “We’ll have a good game plan, keep our composure and prepare for the team before us. I learned from that last game, and it was on my mind for an entire year, and it was one we let go. Now, I know what to do. I am excited about this next run to see where we end up and what seed we get. Hopefully, our work and record put us at a 10- or an 11-seed. Give us a good seed and see what we can do.”

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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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