Tenths of a second ticked off the Assembly Hall clock in what seemed like slow motion. App State players, coaches and fans had seen this before. It was almost assumed that Justin Forrest’s last-second heave would find its way into the basket for a history-making Mountaineer victory.
But this time it fell just short.
From 19 points down to a six-point lead – and a wild ride in between – App State’s rollercoaster First Four game against Norfolk State ended as a 54-53 loss, narrowly preventing the Mountaineers from earning the program’s first NCAA tournament victory.
The defenses for both the Sun Belt Champions and MEAC Champions clamped down in the waning moments of the contest as neither team converted a field goal over the final three minutes.
Adrian Delph’s two made free throws gave App State (17-12) a 53-52 lead with 1:03 remaining, but after the teams traded missed jumpers, Norfolk State’s Devante Carter drew a foul in the lane and made both free throws with eight seconds left.
In App 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 in heartbreaking fashion. Norfolk State (17-7) advances to play No. 1 Gonzaga on Saturday night in the round of 64.
Forrest, who scored 13 of his team-high 18 points after halftime, catalyzed a furious second-half comeback after the Mountaineers trailed by 16 at the break. His deep 3-pointer with 7:43 on the clock gave the Mountaineers their first lead at 46-45 since the game’s opening minutes and was part of a 16-0 run that built App State’s advantage to 51-45.
The Spartans took a commanding 34-15 lead with 3:05 left in the first half on the back of Jalen Hawkins’ 20 first-half points off the bench. Hawkins made all four of his 3-point attempts in the first half and finished with 24 points to top all scorers.
After App State’s guard-heavy lineup missed all 18 attempts from three and shot just 19.4 percent from the field in the first half, head coach Dustin Kerns’ team never gave up.
“I just told them to trust our reps,” Kerns told reporters after the game. “I told them the shots will fall, just to relax and be confident and the shots will fall. And 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.”
Freshman Michael Eads drained the team’s first 3-pointer of the night at the 16:38 of the second half to pull the Mountaineers within 13 at 38-25.
Almonacy hit his first field goal (a 3-pointer) at 14:13 to start a 10-2 run that cut the App State deficit to single digits at 43-35. That led straight to the 16-0 run that featured a pair of three’s and a pair of driving layups from Forrest, while the Mountaineers’ defense shut down the Spartans, who went scoreless for a nearly seven-minute stretch.
Donovan Gregory finished with nine points and pulled down eight rebounds. Delph also added nine points, and RJ Duhart snagged a career-high 11 rebounds and tallied four blocks, which is tied for fourth all-time in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Opening Round/First Four.
App State’s 10 blocked shots are tied for the most all-time in an opening round/First Four game. The Mountaineers won the rebound battle, 46-35.
This was App State’s third NCAA Tournament appearance all-time. The Mountaineers won Southern Conference Tournament Championships in 1979 under head coach Bobby Cremins and 2000 under head coach Buzz Peterson and fell to LSU and Ohio State in the 1979 and 2000 NCAA Tournament first rounds, respectively.
Under Kerns the last two years, the Mountaineers have finished with records of 18-15 and 17-12, marking the program’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 2009-10 and 2010-11.
“I told our team don’t be sad it’s over; be glad it happened,” Kerns said. “We have a lot to be proud of. I’m proud of how our guys represent the university and their community and their families. We’re hanging the first Sun Belt banner in our arena.”