As March wound down without its usual flurry of March Madness moments, NBC Sports Washington took a look back at some smaller DMV schools who made a big impact during their most recent NCAA Tournament appearances.
Eight years later, Philadelphia 76ers forward Kyle O’Quinn still remembers the euphoria from the long walk through the tunnels at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
To him, it felt like the longest walk ever as he and his Norfolk State teammates were “walking on clouds” after his 15th-seeded Spartans upset the second-seeded Missouri Tigers, 86-84, in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
In what was Norfolk State’s first — and to date, its only — tournament appearance, the Spartans put the small Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school from Virginia on the map and wrecked brackets around the nation, becoming the first No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed since 2001 when then-MEAC rival Hampton beat Iowa State.
“You’re hoping that you can win this game because very few have done it,” O’Quinn told NBC Sports Washington. “It came down to us believing that we’re just as good as the other team. We took the names off the jerseys, the names off the backs, we didn’t care who their coach was, and we just played.”
As O’Quinn made that journey through the tunnels, he yelled, “We messed up some brackets! We messed up some brackets!"
While Norfolk State celebrated in the locker room, droves of college basketball fans — including President Barack Obama, who projected Missouri to be a Final Four participant — faced the reality that their bracket was ruined in the first round.
Given the history of No. 2 seeds against No. 15 seeds, combined with the fact that Missouri was a team that some analysts thought should have received a No. 1 seed, most wrote off Norfolk State. While analysts, fans, pundits and even the President advanced Missouri through the first round without much thought, then-head coach Anthony Evans went to work on a game plan.
“We thought we could match up. Obviously, they had better players, but the matchup would be similar in the style of play,” Evans told NBC Sports Washington. “We were confident. And I knew [O’Quinn] would be an X-factor.”
Evans’ prediction came to fruition as the game played out. O’Quinn established a presence in the low post, allowing the Spartans to jump out to an early lead. Missouri did counter and the game was tied 38-38 at the half.
But Norfolk State created mounting pressure as it hung around in the second half. The Spartans also benefited from the presence of Kansas fans, who were preparing to watch the second-seeded Jayhawks later that evening and cheered for the upset over a Big 12 rival.
“At some point, the pressure was going to build on them because they were seeded so high,” Evans said. “They were going to feel it as we stayed in it.”
Pressure intensified with 34 seconds to play when O’Quinn caught a teammate's errant 3-point attempt, an airball, and hit a layup while drawing a foul. O’Quinn’s ensuing free throw put the Spartans up 84-81.
But Missouri still had a chance in the waning seconds. Star guard Phil Pressey pushed the ball up the floor and pulled up for a 3-pointer just before the buzzer sounded.
“I could watch it 10 times right now, and I still think it might go in,” O’Quinn said. “I can still see the shot going in and it being one of those things where it’s like ‘Well they fought, and they just fell a little short.’”
That wasn’t the case, though. Instead, Pressey’s attempt caromed off the rim, igniting an on-court celebration years in the making for O’Quinn, a senior from New York City playing in his final college games. He scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. It was a breakout game where O’Quinn made a name for himself and paved his way to becoming a second-round NBA draft pick — a far cry from when he received one scholarship offer out of high school.
O’Quinn received help from his teammates, too. Norfolk State’s five starters scored all 86 of the team’s points. Guards Chris McEachin and Pendarvis Williams dropped 20 points each, while forwards Marcos Tamares and Rodney McCauley added 11 and nine, respectively. Two days after the historic upset, seventh-seeded Florida routed the Spartans, 84-50.
Still, Norfolk State had added its name to NCAA tournament upset lore in its first-ever appearance in the Big Dance and that’s something that can never be taken away from anybody on that team. To this day, only eight No. 15 seeds have beaten a No. 2. Ironically, half of them are from Virginia (Richmond over Syracuse in 1991, Hampton over Iowa State in 2001 and Norfolk State in 2012) or Maryland (Coppin State beat South Carolina in 1997). And UMBC remains the only No. 16 to beat a No. 1 with its historic win over Virginia in 2018. It is a club the Spartans will always be a part of.
“Number one,” O’Quinn said without hesitation when asked where that moment ranks in his basketball career. “It’s just the pride of the name on your jersey...That game, to stand out that much and impact so many lives, it has to be number one.”
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