Norfolk State's historic win resonates

Updated: March 17, 2012, 6:06 AM ET
By Jason King | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Moments after the most stunning NCAA tournament upset of the past decade, the Norfolk State Spartans reacted like typical college students.

They hurried into the locker room -- and pulled out their cellphones.

"We're trending on Twitter right now -- nationally," one player said.

A teammate spoke up from across the room.

"I just got a text. People are jumping into the fountain back on campus."

Soon it was revealed that the website for Norfolk State's student newspaper had crashed because of an overload of traffic.

Then came the announcement that only two of the 6.45 million participants in ESPN.com's bracket challenge still had perfect records -- mainly because of No. 15 seed Norfolk State's 86-84 victory over Missouri on Friday at the CenturyLink Center. Even U.S. President Barack Obama had No. 2 seed Missouri going to the Final Four.

[+] EnlargeNorfolk State celebration
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNorfolk State became the fifth 15-seed to upset a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Standing before a throng of television cameras, guard Jamel Fuentes flashed a cheesy grin.

"I'd like to personally thank President Obama," he said, "for allowing us to bust his bracket."

Yes, before their coach had even made it back from his postgame news conference, the magnitude of Friday's win had hit the Spartans hard. Three hours earlier, they were unknowns, 22-point underdogs from a school of 5,000 undergrads participating in their first NCAA tournament.

Now they're America's Little Engines That Could, a reminder of why even the most casual sports fan is so in love with March. Norfolk State's victory marked the first time since 2001 -- when fellow MEAC member Hampton defeated another one of those Big 12 teams, Iowa State -- that a No. 15 seed had defeated a No. 2.

While most of Saturday will be spent focusing on their next opponent (Florida), the Spartans were doing everything they could to relish Friday's milestone.

When things settled down a bit, a Norfolk State equipment manager carried his cellphone from locker to locker, showing each player a picture of the T-shirts that were already being sold on the school's website.

"This Wasn't An Upset," the shirts read.

Indeed, even though they admitted to "shocking the world," the Spartans said they were hardly stunned by their win over Missouri, which ended its season 30-5.

Norfolk State didn't win because the Tigers played poorly. The Spartans won because they were the better team. They didn't win because Missouri wilted down the stretch. The victory happened because each time the Tigers appeared ready to seize control, the Spartans fought back with a counterpunch.

Norfolk State shot 54 percent against Mizzou and outrebounded the Tigers 35-23.

"We even messed up my bracket," forward Kyle O'Quinn said.

I'd like to personally thank President Obama for allowing us to bust his bracket.

-- Norfolk State's Jamel Fuentes

The only questions that remained after the game were: (1) How in the heck is Norfolk State a No. 15 seed? (2) Why have we never heard of O'Quinn?

A 6-foot-10, 240-pound senior, O'Quinn abused Missouri for 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting. He also grabbed 14 rebounds.

O'Quinn's biggest moment came when he broke an 81-all tie by scoring on a tip-in of a Chris McEachin air ball with 34.9 seconds remaining. O'Quinn was fouled on the play, and his ensuing free throw made it 84-81.

O'Quinn had a chance to seal the game moments later when he stepped to the charity stripe with 3.8 seconds remaining and Norfolk State leading 86-84. He missed both free throws -- but Missouri's Phil Pressey clanked a game-winning 3-point attempt off the side of the rim as time expired.

"I probably would've killed myself on the court if that would've been the determining factor in the game," O'Quinn said of the errant foul shots. "So it felt pretty good when Pressey missed that 3."

Pressey crumbled to the court as the final horn sounded and pulled his jersey over his head. So he wasn't able to watch as Norfolk State's players danced around the court, pumping their fists and flicking their jerseys in celebration.

They certainly received plenty of support.

More than half the people in the CenturyLink Center on Friday were Kansas fans who were more than happy to cheer Norfolk State on against their archrival. Kansas played Detroit on the same floor later Friday evening.

"We ran into a couple of Kansas fans at dinner [Thursday]," O'Quinn said. "A lady about 70 years old said, 'Whatever you do, beat Mizzou!'"

Norfolk State transitioned from Division II to Division I in 1997-98. It has had just three winning seasons in the past 15 years and was 12-20 last season. Rarely do more than a few hundred fans show up for home games, and the school operates on an athletic budget of $12.1 million. By contrast, Missouri's budget is $59 million.

So obscure are the Spartans that, on a road trip to Ohio University this season, a fan in a convenience store got ga-ga-eyed because he thought they were the Michigan State Spartans.

"Hopefully," guard Rodney McCauley said, "everyone knows who we are now."

How could they not?

For a team that had never played in the NCAA tournament -- or in front of a big crowd -- the Spartans showed an incredible amount of poise Friday. They said they were confident going into the game and actually clapped when it was announced on Selection Sunday that they'd be playing the Tigers.

Missouri uses a four-guard offense, which is something Norfolk State faces routinely in the MEAC.

"We're bigger than them, and we exploited it," forward Marcos Tamares said. "The pressure wasn't on us to win the game. We're a 15-seed. We're supposed to be one-and-done. The pressure was on them. We felt like we could compete with anyone."

[+] EnlargeKyle O'Quinn
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesKyle O'Quinn went unwanted in the recruiting process. On Friday, he was key in NSU's upset.

Missouri took a four-point lead in the second half and appeared to have the momentum. McCauely even said Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe chanted, "This is easy," as he ran down the court after a made layup.

"Obviously," MCauley said, "it wasn't too easy for them. Every time I went to the bench, I kept telling everyone, 'They don't box out. They don't box out.' We just kept fighting and stayed tough the whole way."

It also helped that Norfolk State -- which features four senior starters -- caught fire from 3-point range. The Spartans entered the game shooting 31.1 percent from beyond the arc. They made 10 of their 19 3-point attempts (52.6 percent) Friday.

With each made shot, the crowd grew louder. At the CenturyLink Center and, in all probability, across the nation.

O'Quinn had even developed a new nickname by the end of the game: O'Quinnsanity. "We went to the Virgin Islands earlier this year with six fans," O'Quinn said. "By the time we left, the whole gym was behind us.

"Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath -- and everyone knows who won. When you're the underdog and you overcome some pressure, everyone is on your side."

O'Quinn, though, said he'd much rather be referred to as "Cinderella" than "David." He chuckled when asked whether he planned to wear a glass slipper.

"I hope so," he said. "I wear size 15, if you can find a pair."