OMAHA, Neb. — The glitter-encrusted sign of green cardboard rested near the court, untouched and alone.
“We believe,” the sign read.
Minute after ugly minute dripped away at CenturyLink Center on Sunday night. A 25-0 run by Florida. Exhausted, sweat-drenched Norfolk State players. Botched layups. No smiles from Kyle O’Quinn. Norfolk State’s dream was finished, but the clock hadn’t caught up.
Finally, mercifully the horn sounded to end carnage: Florida 84, Norfolk State 50.
“It wasn’t the kind of game,” Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said gingerly, “We’d have liked to play.”
The Spartans weren’t supposed to be here, not in the NCAA tournament’s third round.
Picked to finish fourth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s preseason poll, Norfolk State’s best player, O’Quinn, drew just one Division I scholarship offer. Eight players on the roster are transfers; the others lightly recruited. Its fifth-year head coach, Evans, used to work shifts at the 84 Quick Stop convenience store in Newburgh, N.Y., while a volunteer assistant coach at a local community college. Norfolk State never before appeared in the NCAA tournament and, earlier this season, lost to Elizabeth City, a Division II school that finished 15-14.
Two hours against second-seeded Missouri on Friday changed everything. A 21.5-point underdog, 15th-seeded Norfolk State turned the arena into its home court with “N-S-U” chants, O’Quinn’s broad smiles and full-court pressure that became an 86-84 upset of Missouri.
Evans sought out his wife, Kisha, in the stands. She shook and cried as they embraced. In the locker room, Norfolk State’s players hooted and hollered in disbelief and chided President Obama for predicting Missouri would advance to the Final Four.
Only five other No. 15 seeds have won a game in the tournament. It was the MEAC’s lone win against the six power conferences this season, going 1-41.
Thirty-six hours later, reality looked like 94 feet of energy-sucking, season-ending pressure from Florida’s defense.
“They’re a different type of athlete,” Evans said.
One of Norfolk State’s six goals against Missouri was to wear it down. Against Florida, Norfolk State was the worn-out team. Each combination Evans put on the court looked a step slower, like they were trying to compete against five Energizer Bunnys.
Florida zipped passes around the perimeter and, in keeping with its status as the nation’s top 3-point team, sank 10 shots from beyond the arc. That led to a 25-0 run midway through the first half. As Norfolk State grew tired and its timeouts didn’t slow the onslaught, Florida pushed the tempo.
O’Quinn, who fueled the Missouri upset with 26 points and 14 rebounds, fell into early foul trouble. He drew double-teams. And Florida’s sophomore center, Patric Young, with legs like Pogo Sticks, bedeviled O’Quinn in the post.
The carefree smiles that pushed O’Quinn into the national spotlight were gone. That’s when assistant Larry Vickers knows the senior center is frustrated. The 20 double-doubles O’Quinn recorded this season were a far-off memory after four points on 1-for-9 shooting and three rebounds.
“I wish I had the answers,” O’Quinn said. “Nothing went our way. We’re human beings. It pushes you back. It pushes you back. Eventually, you see the scoreboard.”
That scoreboard told a story O’Quinn wished he could change.
But as he exited in socks and flip-flops, O’Quinn carried a history-making weekend that won’t change.