Saturday, March 17, 2012

New York Still Alive Thanks To Norfolk State

Queens product Kyle O'Quinn exults in shocking 86-84 Norfolk State victory over Missouri, as Spartans become third straight MEAC school and just fifth ever to upset a No. 2 seed in NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

The one New York City representative in this year's NCAA Tournament was eliminated last night in LIU Brooklyn's 22-point loss to Michigan State; but earlier in the day, a school that may as well be a program based in the five boroughs with all the local flavor on its roster registered what ranked as the tournament's biggest upset until Lehigh provided their own shocking victory against Mike Krzyzewski and Duke hours later.

In a West regional round of 64 game, 15th-seeded Norfolk State became just the fifth (Lehigh eventually added themselves to the list as No. 6) team from that slot in the bracket to eliminate a No. 2 seed by virtue of the Spartans' 86-84 victory over a Missouri squad that was the popular choice to represent the regional in the Final Four. Norfolk State was also the third consecutive school from the Mideastern Athletic Conference to defeat a No. 2 seed, joining Coppin State, who defeated South Carolina in 1997; and Hampton, who accomplished the rare feat in 2001 after toppling Iowa State.

As mentioned before, LIU Brooklyn was the only New York City program in the field of 68 this year; but when one looks at Norfolk State's roster, the casual fan may mistake the Spartans for a local AAU team. With eight players hailing from the largest city in the United States, Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans now has a roster full of kids with dreams as huge as the metropolis half of them call home. Ironically, Norfolk State defeated LIU Brooklyn earlier in the year when the two-time reigning Northeast Conference champions traveled to Virginia, scoring a 73-62 win that served as the Blackbirds' last loss before Jim Ferry's team went on a nine-game winning streak that was halted by Robert Morris six weeks later.

Of the octet of New Yorkers on Evans' roster, their biggest contributor; both from a physical and statistical perspective, is Kyle O'Quinn. A 6-10 senior from Jamaica, Queens, O'Quinn was the epitome of an unheralded prospect coming out of Campus Magnet (formerly Andrew Jackson) High School in Cambria Heights. O'Quinn's lone scholarship offer came from the Norfolk State program he has now spent four years at, and the senior had perhaps his finest hour last night in a 26-point, 14-rebound performance against an undersized Missouri team coached by fellow Queens product Frank Haith that had no true answer for O'Quinn's monstrous interior presence.

"We even messed up my bracket," gushed O'Quinn shortly after the Spartans had done the improbable and sent most of the nation to a likely defeat in their office pools. "We always go into the game with a sense of confidence. I never thought there was an upset alert until the buzzer went off."

For Norfolk State; who also nearly upset Marquette in the championship game of the Paradise Jam earlier in the season, O'Quinn has been the man at the forefront of the Spartans' first-ever NCAA Tournament experience, one now enhanced by a win. Selected as the MEAC Player of the Year, O'Quinn is averaging sixteen points and ten rebounds per game. However, if you ask him what may be in store down the road, he'll be the first one to highlight the uncertainty that comes with a professional career.

"I don't know," O'Quinn firmly said. "I hope somebody picks me up. I don't know what my future is. Winning on Sunday, how about that? Let's take small steps." The Cinderella Spartans next take on former two-time national champion Florida tomorrow, with the winner moving on to Phoenix for a regional semifinal date with either Murray State or the same Marquette team that has already beaten Norfolk State twice this season.

If they can get past Billy Donovan and the Gators tomorrow night, then maybe; just maybe, the third time could be the charm for Norfolk State. Either way, the Virginia school with the New York flavor has proven Jay-Z's "Empire State Of Mind" lyrics of "concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there's nothing you can't do" to be true no matter what happens the rest of the way.

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