‘Another gritty win’: Norfolk State rides strong second half to win over NC Central

NORFOLK — Monday night’s rematch between Norfolk State and North Carolina Central was a tale of two halves.

The Spartans looked unrecognizable on offense in the first half with a measly 21.7% shooting percentage. They turned it around in the second half by shooting 70.4% and ultimately won 80-74.

As for what the halftime adjustments were, NSU head coach Robert Jones broke it down with a simple tongue-in-cheek comment.

“A couple spirited conversations,” Jones said.

Whatever those spirited conversations were, they worked. Norfolk State (17-9, 7-2 MEAC) didn’t lead at all in the first half, going into the break down 30-26, but outscored N.C. Central 54-44 in the second half.

The second half went back and forth between the two MEAC heavyweights, but that’s exactly how Jones expects a game between the two to go.

“I always say we’re the two best programs,” Jones said. “I don’t care what the standings say, I just know the history of what it is recently and we’re the two best overall programs. Every now and then, we don’t win the championship, neither one of us, but you can see consistency in those programs. So that’s why there’s 3,500 people here to see that game at 9 p.m.”

When Norfolk State and N.C. Central faced off in early January, the Eagles walked off with a 60-58 win. A loss Monday night by NSU would have helped the Eagles leapfrog the Spartans in the MEAC standings. Instead, Norfolk State is now 7-2 in conference play with a two-game lead over a group of five teams at 5-4.

“Obviously, we wanted to get the game back,” NSU’s Jamarii Thomas said. “Put us up two games in conference play. It was a big game, we just wanted to come out, compete the right way and get the win.”

Thomas’ performance Monday night was indicative of the Spartans as a whole. The junior played 39 minutes, the second time he’s done so this season, and finished with 28 points. After scoring just eight points in the first half, he exploded for 20 in the second half.

“It was just my teammates and coach putting the ball in my hands,” Thomas said. “And my teammates trusting me and Coach Jones trusting me as well.”

In each of the past few close wins for Norfolk State, there is a shot you can pinpoint as the one that won the game. Monday night, it was Kuluel Mading who made it happen.

With the game tied at 74, NSU’s Allen Betrand put up a shot with 46 seconds left that was blocked. Tyrese Jenkins picked up the ball after the block and found Mading, who pulled up from the free-throw line and drilled a jumper to give Norfolk State a 76-74 lead.

“Kuluel had a solid game,” Jones said. “That was a big, big free-throw-line jump shot that he made. I almost screamed at him because I didn’t understand why he didn’t go dunk it … but he made the shot, so everybody’s happy.”

The Spartans’ defense shut down the Eagles on the ensuing possession and forced a turnover, allowing Thomas to ice the game with two separate free-throw opportunities.

“Another gritty win,” Jones said. “We had to come back from being down a little bit. We had a great second half to a certain extent, offensively, and we were able to pull out a tough win against a tough North Carolina Central team.”

Michael Sauls, (757) 803-5774,