Norfolk State survived a late scare to nip Appalachian State 54-53 in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament at Assembly Hall. The Spartans, making their second all-time appearance in the tournament, advance to face overall number one seed Gonzaga in the first round.
Jalen Hawkins led Norfolk State (17-7) with a career-high 24 points while Joe Bryant Jr. added 10. Justin Forrest led Appalachian State (17-12) with 18 points, who outrebounded the Spartans 46-35.
Norfolk State led by as many as 19 at one point in the game and was ahead by 16 at halftime before seeing a furious second-half rally by the Mountaineers, who shot just 25.8 percent from the field.
Norfolk State rallies from late deficit, nips Appalachian State to advance
Bryant Jr. scored just four seconds into the game, which helped Norfolk State get out to an early 10-3 lead. Hawkins hit a trio three-pointers to help the Spartans build a 19-11 lead. After Appalachian State cut the lead to 19-15, Hawkins took over.
He had 10 points during a 15-0 run for the Spartans that ballooned their lead 34-15. Appalachian State did cut the lead to 36-20 at halftime, but they shot 19 percent in the first half and was 0-of-18 from three-point range.
Norfolk State were still ahead by 16 after a 3-pointer from senior Kashaun Hicks, but Appalachian State put together a 26-4 run during an eight and a half minute stretch that gave the Mountaineers a six-point edge with less than six minutes to go in the game.
Forrest gave the Sun Belt champions a 46-45 lead after a deep three and they increased the lead to 51-45 until Hawkins finally snapped Norfolk State's six and a half minute scoreless drought with a layup and Bryant followed with a corner three to get the MEAC champions to within one.
J.J. Matthews sank a turnaround jumper in the paint with 3:06 to go to give Norfolk State a 52-51 lead, and the only points the rest of the way came when each team made two from the charity stripe. In Appalachian State's final possession, Michael Almonacy missed a contested 3-pointer, and Forrest's last-second deep two-point attempt off the rebound fell short.
Appalachian State head coach Dustin Kerns said after the Mountaineers' defeat that "I just told them to trust their reps. I told them the shots will fall, just to relax and be confident and the shots will fall.
"I think at halftime our guys did settle down a little bit. In the second half I thought we settled down and certainly gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game."