Norfolk State Beats Appalachian State 54-53, Advances to Face No. 1 Gonzaga

Blake SchusterSenior Analyst IIMarch 19, 2021

Norfolk State forward J.J. Matthews (15), left, and Appalachian State guard Justin Forrest (1) battle for the ball during the first half of a First Four game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

Nearly a decade after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, No. 16 seed Norfolk State is back in the round of 64 thanks to a 54-53 victory over No. 16 Appalachian State in Thursday's First Four matchup. 

Norfolk State (17-7) will now need to make even more history if it wants to advance to the round of 32, as a matchup with undefeated No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga looms Saturday. 

Kyle O'Quinn led the Spartans past No. 2 Mizzou in the round of 64 as a No. 15 seed in 2012, Norfolk State's first NCAA tournament appearance. The Zags post a considerably more difficult challenge this year. The Spartans will hope to get an O'Quinn-esqe performance out of Jalen Hawkins after he led the way with a career-high 24 points over the Mountaineers (17-12) on Thursday.  

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

NORFOLK STATE TAKES IT! The Spartans move on to face Gonzaga in the First Round! @NSU_BBALL | #MarchMadness https://t.co/2MCBluM2Zk

Notable Performers

Jalen Hawkins, G, Norfolk State Spartans: 24 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals

Joe Bryant Jr., G, Norfolk State Spartans: 10 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals

Justin Forrest, G, Appalachian State Mountaineers: 18 points, 4 rebounds

Donovan Gregory, G, Appalachian State Mountaineers: 9 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

Mountaineers Can't Complete Comeback

App State followed up a historically bad first half Thursday with an epic, 19-point comeback that nearly secured a victory at Assembly Hall. 

Two last-second attempts before the buzzer just wouldn't fall, the latter coming off the hand of ASU's leading scorer, Justin Forrest, and coming up short as time expired. It was a heartbreaking way to lose made even more gutting by the way the Mountaineers overcome shooting 19.4 percent from the field in the first half. 

CBS Sports @CBSSports

The Mountaineers have come ALL the way back to take the lead. They trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half. https://t.co/PvDfEkGAlD

No team in college basketball missed more three-pointers without a make in the first half this season than ASU. After going 0-18 behind the arc in the first half, the 20th attempt on the night finally fell three minutes into the second frame. 

That helped kick off a 21-4 run by the Mountaineers to erase a 36-20 halftime deficit and put them back on top 46-45 with 7:30 remaining. 

Early foul trouble from Forrest wasn't making things any easier. Forrest picked up two fouls in the first 12 minutes and then was forced back to the bench after picking up his third personal minutes into the second half. When the senior guard came back in, the Mountaineers still had a chance to take control but couldn't take advantage of a reeling Spartans team. 

The comeback may have burned up all the energy Appalachian State had left, but two final looks at the rim made a victory possible. Neither would fall, ending ASU's season and allowing the Spartans to exhale.

Jalen Hawkins Leads Norfolk Off Bench

Jalen Hawkins's breakout moment couldn't have come at a better time for the Spartans. 

The Spartans' first player off the bench Thursday may have scored himself a spot in the starting lineup against Gonzaga after a career day in which he hit his first three field-goal attempts—all three-pointers—and surpassed his career high in scoring before the first half even finished. 

The first player to take over the NCAA tournament this year truly outdid himself, going for repeated heat checks and sinking all of them. 

B/R Hoops @brhoops

Jalen Hawkins just hopped off the bench and dropped 20 in the first half against Appalachian State 🔥 https://t.co/i6Ec9o9XOq

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Norfolk State gettin' fancy with it 👀 @NSU_BBALL | #MarchMadness https://t.co/VpJqW6Ympy

The only thing better than Hawkins' performance is the road he took to reach it. 

A redshirt junior from New York, Hawkins started his college career at Odessa College in 2018 then transferred to Robert Morris after one season. The guard averaged 7.3 points per game with the Colonials and entered the transfer portal to find the right spot for him. It wasn't until August—in the midst of the pandemic—that he settled on Norfolk State.

Hawkins played off the bench all season, averaging 9.4 points with 2.6 rebounds. 

On Thursday, he scored 10 points in less than 10 minutes and surpassed his season high of 17 points with 20 by halftime. 

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Jalen Hawkins finishing HIGH off the glass for the Spartans 😮 @NSU_BBALL | #MarchMadness https://t.co/Aru8LmKIBW

Hawkins cooled off a bit in the second half but was there down the stretch as the Spartans attempted to eke out the win. 

A potential Cinderella candidate in Norfolk State was carried by a Cinderella story on its own roster, just the type of breakout that makes it hard to look away from any game during the NCAA tournament. 

What's Next

Norfolk State will return to Indianapolis to prepare for Saturday's showdown with undefeated Gonzaga as the tournament favorites make their debut. Tipoff is slated for 9:10 p.m. ET at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on TBS.